The season has flown by, and it's time to hand out the virtual hardware. But before I get to that, one quick State of the Big Ten take. This conference season was unlike any other I can remember (though I don't have a very good memory) in that I really think the conference has at least two National Title Contenders, but also has at least four teams that would have been, in a "normal year," a suitable last-place team. As recently as 2014—the last of the Pre-Rutgers Era—not a single Big Ten team ranked as low in Ken Pomeroy's computer as Penn State, Illinois, Minnesota, and Rutgers do today. But the top of this year's Big Ten is every bit as good as that season's.
The result of such a large gap between the Haves and Have Nots are some truly bizarre efficiency margins. Michigan State featured both the conference's best offense and best defense, for an even +0.20 efficiency margin. Indiana won the Big Ten outright by a full two games, but well behind the Spartans with a still very good +0.15 margin. The Ohio State Buckeyes had a great on paper 11-7 season, but actually went negative by efficiency margin—6 games against the aforementioned Bottom Four will do that.
While this was an enjoyable season of Big Ten basketball, to this point it has not been a successful one. The conference ranks as the second worst high-major conference per Pomeroy, which should really be the floor for a conference featuring long winters and the state of Indiana. Football dynasties will be difficult and short-lived, but basketball should be king.
And now, (virtual) awards.
*Player of the Year: *Denzel Valentine
No surprises here, and frankly I'm a little floored he's not the consensus choice for the National Player of the Year. Yes, he missed four games—but is there any doubt that his numbers would be stronger, if he had another 40 minutes versus the likes of Illinois, Minnesota, and Oakland? If you put him up against 2015 Frank Kaminsky, well, I'd probably still vote for Kaminsky but this would be as close to a Bush v. Gore race as a cold look at numbers could provide.
Denzel shot 50% on three-pointers in Big Ten play while consuming 28 percent of his team's possessions and functioning as the best distributor in the league. Don't get cute, don't engage in invented language debates over "best" and "valuable" (they are, and always will be, the same), don't give one player a trophy because of how his teammates performed. Just write Denzel.
*Rest of the 1st Team: *
I don't understand the compulsion of filling out a first team with some loose rules around positions. So my team has two centers and two point guards—so what?
I'm most conflicted about including Uthoff on this list. He's had a fine season overall, but he slumped over the second half of the Big Ten schedule, and it produced some middling numbers. For instance, his relatively low 47.1 eFG. Offensively, the best thing he has going for him is the high consumption of possessions without turning the ball over—remarkable, considering he opened up the Big Ten slate by turning the ball over 8 times against Michigan State. But Uthoff also doesn't create very much for his teammates, and his free throw rate isn't so spectacular that he's showing exceptional skill by not turning the ball over in high-contact situations. His defense (blocks, really) put him over the top for me, but I would not blame any Malcolm Hill (virtually same eFG, more possessions, better rebounding, many more assists, most fouls drawn in the Big Ten) or Matt Costello (much higher eFG, Big Ten's best rebounder) fans for sending some hate tweets.
*Freshman of the Year: *Diamond Stone
Ethan Happ seems to be getting a lot of talk for this award, but I can't get there. Offensively, it's no contest, as Stone consumes the same number of possessions, converts at a higher rate, and gets to the line a ton, where he shoots 77%. Is it because Happ plays a few minutes per game more? Because Maryland seems like a disappointment and therefore needs to be punished? Because Stone did this?
— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) February 14, 2016
Maybe those things move the needle with you. Or maybe it's Happ's defense (more on that in a bit). I don't discount the value of defense, but Stone is a very good shotblocker, gets an admirable amount of steals, and keeps the fouls down quite well, as freshmen centers go.
*Defensive Player of the Year: *Ethan Happ
Happ finishes the Big Ten slate with a 5.5% steal rate, meaning on average he garnered 5.5 steals for every 100 possessions he was on the floor. That's a lot—here are the Big Ten single-season leaders since the 2002-03 season:
- Happ (2016), 5.5
- Chris Kramer (2008), 5.0
- Al Nolen (2008), 5.0
- Damian Johnson (2008), 4.9
- Aaron Craft (2014), 4.9
Happ didn't just set the modern-day mark—he obliterated it. He also was the 4th-best defensive rebounder and ranked in the top-20 in block percentage. It's also worth mentioning that he led the Big Ten in defensive rating.
The list above (and extending the list to the top-20 or so would make it more clear) that the leaders are generally pressuring point guards and/or players that were in a pressing defensive scheme. Happ and the Wisconsin Badgers are neither of those things, and this season was the first in which the Big Ten's collective turnover rate dipped below 17.0 in the Tempo Free (aka, "As Far Back as Pomeroy's Computer Can Take Us") Era. Happ was swimming upstream, didn't neglect his other defensive responsibilities, and still lapped the competition.
Happ may not be the conference's best freshman, but there's quite the ceiling here. In two or three seasons, you will be nauseous from reading so many paint-by-numbers puff pieces about the Badger from the Quad Cities.