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Who is the B1G player of the year?

There are a number of great players in the conference this year, but this is probably a two-horse race.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson. Mateen Cleaves. Devin Harris. Alando Tucker. Evan Turner. Draymond Green. Frank Kaminsky. Cassius Winston.

These are some of the all-time greats from the Big Ten Conference who won the B1G Conference Player of the Year award over the past 25 odd years. In a few short weeks the conference will be rewarding another player with this honor and I think it’s best that we discuss who that might be. I have some sad news first, and hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but there will be no Wisconsin players considered for this award.

First a clarification: I don’t think that the best player in the conference has to be the best player from the best team. Like, in baseball Mike Trout shouldn’t be punished because the Angels stink out loud. He’s the best baseball player basically every year until he retires. However, there must be a semblance of team success because basketball is more of a team sport than baseball.

Alright, who are the top-five candidates to win B1G Player of the Year?

Honorable mention

These guys have had very good seasons, and maybe in a different year they’d be considered as finalists for this award, but this is not that year.

  • Xavier Tillman, forward, Michigan State: 13.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.1 bpg, 113.8 ORtg
  • Anthony Cowan, guard, Maryland: 16.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.0 spg, 114.7 ORtg
  • Lamar Stevens, forward, Penn State: 17.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.2 spg, 102.4 ORtg

(Some advanced stat definitions for you: WS is win shares, which is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense and defense. BPM is box plus/minus, which is a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team.)

No. 5

  • Cassius Winston, guard, Michigan State: 18.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.3 spg, 108.4 ORtg, 30% possession usage, 30.5% of shots, 3.9 WS, 7.5 BPM
NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Winston came back to school for his senior year with the express purpose of winning the conference and making the Final Four. Currently it looks like winning the conference won’t happen and, barring some voodoo Tom Izzo shit, making the Final Four won’t happen either. Winston is the defending B1G Player of the Year and was a consensus All-American last year as well, so it makes sense that he was the preseason favorite to win the award again.

Sadly, all of his counting stats (except steals) and all of his percentages (except free throw, but on 1.5 fewer attempts this year) are down this year while his turnovers are up. He won’t win the award this year, but he deserves to be on the short-list as sort of a “lifetime achievement” honor.

No. 4

  • Kaleb Wesson, forward, Ohio State: 14.1 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.1 bpg, 107.9 ORtg, 27.1% possession usage, 25% of shots, 4.0 WS, 10.8 BPM
NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State spent most of the month of January losing every single game they played. From Dec. 29 to Jan. 25 they lost six of seven games, their only win being a home game against Nebraska aka the worst team in the league. Since then, however, the Buckeyes have won five of six (only losing to Wisconsin, natch) and Wesson has been a major key to the turnaround. He was the KenPom MVP in half of the games, had double-doubles in half of the games and scored in double figures in every game except the loss against the Badgers.

While his advanced offensive stats and scoring numbers are down a touch this year, he has made improvements on the defensive side of the ball to turn himself into a complete player. It is also worth noting that his 3P% has improved from 28.6 to 34.7 to 42.9 throughout his career, each year with higher volume of attempts too.

No. 3

  • Daniel Oturu, forward, Minnesota: 19.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, 2.7 bpg, 109.9 ORtg, 28.1% possession usage, 26.5% of shots, 4.6 WS, 10.3 BPM
NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers, having lost three straight and five of their last six, now have a losing record on the season and are in danger of missing the postseason all together unless they right the ship quickly. While Oturu hasn’t played great recently, it’s hard to argue that any of this is his fault. He’s clearly the best player on the team but it seems like the Gophers sometimes forget that.

After averaging just under 11 points and seven rebounds as a freshman, Oturu decided to come back to school for another year and, well, made himself a truckload of cash in the process. If he can improve his outside shooting and free throw shooting, he’ll be in high demand come NBA Draft time. That doesn’t have anything to do with his chances of winning the best player in the conference award, but it was a nice thing to say about a Gopher so lay off me.

No. 2

  • Jalen Smith, forward, Maryland: 15.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 0.7 apg, 2.3 bpg, 119.9 ORtg, 22.4% possessions used, 22.6% of shots, 5.3 WS, 12.4 BPM
NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

And now we get down to the two players that I, and annoyingly Dan Dakich, think are the best players in the B1G this season. Smith is another player, like Oturu, who returned to school and will be reaping the benefit come draft time. Smith improved in every statistical category you’d want a stretch big to improve in and is doing it with a lower usage. What pops out the most is his 3P% improving from 26.8% to 38% while attempting 0.5 more threes per game. He also upped his free throw percentage to 75.4 from 65.8 showing that this improvement is sustainable and that there might be even better numbers that he could reach someday.

Stix, as he’s known, is No. 3 in the conference in blocks per game and tied for No. 4 in block percentage. He’s a terror on defense and deters guards from even thinking about coming into the paint. In conference play, he has the highest ORtg of any player. The Terps have won nine games in a row (in their last game, Smith went for a cool 22 and 19) and are closing in on a B1G regular season title. Just about any other year and Smith would probably be the player of the year.

No. 1

  • Luka Garza, forward, Iowa: 23.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.7 bpg, 118.9 ORtg, 31% possessions used, 35.1% of shots, 5.3 WS, 10.7 BPM
NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

However, this is not just “any other year.” Iowa’s Luka Garza is having a monster year and should not only be getting consideration for best player in the conference but also for best player in the country. Garza has put the Iowa Hawkeyes on his back this year and dragged the injury-riddled squad to a third place tie (with Wisconsin and, like, one million other teams) so far. Garz leads the nation in KenPom MVP awards with 16 on the year and the last time he scored fewer than 20 points in a game was Jan. 7th against Nebraska. He only scored 16 in that game, but also grabbed 18 boards and was named KenPom MVP in a losing effort.

The 6-foot-11 Garza is shooting a career-high 38.8% from three on a career-high 3.3 attempts and is being used by the Hawks until his wheels fall off. I hate Luka Garza but God dammit do I respect him.