Handicapping the Big Ten men's basketball player of the year race
Four of the Big Ten’s best players were in action Thursday night, which makes this as good a time as any to break down what is shaping up to be a fascinating race for conference player of the year.
A year ago, that was not the case. Everyone and their mother knew Iowa’s Luka Garza was going to be the Big Ten player of the year from the season’s outset, and Garza did not disappoint.
This season, there are more potential player of the year candidates than spots on the all-Big Ten first team. But as we get closer to March, that field will continue to winnow.
Here is the potential player of the year field.
But before we get into it, we should probably include a trigger warning for Michigan State fans — there are no Spartans on this list despite MSU being tied for first place in the B1G. Which is probably something voters should keep in mind when it’s time to pick the coach of the year.
Keegan Murray, Iowa
Will a Hawkeye get named Big Ten player of the year for a third straight season?
Murray has filled Garza’s void, leading the nation with 24.7 points per game heading into Thursday night. That average will dip a bit temporarily after twin brother Kris led the way with a career-high 29 points against Indiana while Keegan only scored 12. But Keegan is likely to stay atop the country over the season as a whole playing in Fran McCaffery’s scorer-friendly offense.
Murray isn’t just a scorer, though. He’s ninth in the Big Ten with 1.5 steals per game and sixth in rebounding with 7.9 boards per game.
Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
Davis was fourth in the country with 22.3 points per game until running into Ohio State’s defense Thursday night. He struggled from the field — a truly poor 4-for-18 shooting performance — yet still nearly netted a double-double with 14 points and 9 rebounds.
Which should tell you something about how good a season Davis is having. Even his worst night of the season is an eyelash shy of a double-double.
If the Badgers win the Big Ten, Davis will be in good position to be the first Wisconsin player to earn player of the year since Frank Kaminsky in 2015.
Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
If not for Garza, Cockburn might have been the B1G player of the year in 2021. The fact he’s repeating that production figures to gain some appreciation from the electorate.
Cockburn, who entered the transfer portal last summer only to decide staying in Champaign was his best choice, is reaping the rewards of that wisdom. He’s fifth nationally in scoring (22 ppg) and third in rebounding (12.5 rpg).
The traditional pivot man in the post is a vanishing breed, but Cockburn is one of the best remaining examples of the species.
On the rise
EJ Liddell, Ohio State
If you’re picking the league’s best two-way player, Liddell might be the guy. He’s fourth in scoring with 20.1 points per game and leads the B1G with 3.2 blocked shots per game.
For what it’s worth, analytics site KenPom.com currently ranks Liddell as the second-best player in the entire country behind Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe. That’s just ahead of Cockburn, who rates third nationally.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
Few players in Big Ten — or the country — are as well-rounded as Jackson-Davis.
He’s fifth in the B1G in scoring (19.4 ppg), fifth in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and second in blocks (3 per game).
Jackson-Davis will continue to benefit statistically from the fact he is by far Indiana’s top offensive option. However, that also increases the odds the Hoosiers will be too mediocre in the standings to put him over the top.
Don’t sleep on
Jaden Ivey, Purdue
The bad news for Ivey’s candidacy is that the Boilermakers have so many viable scoring options. He won’t be able to rack up the same gaudy numbers as other top candidates.
Also working against him — for the moment — is Purdue’s surprising 2-2 start in the Big Ten. If you’re the best player on the best team, you have a chance to win some hardware.
If Ivey gets hot — and as the Big Ten’s 10th-best 3-point shooter, he’s capable — he could find himself in the mix.
Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
To this point, the preseason all-American has had a disappointing season along with the rest of the Wolverines. The fact the team hasn’t been able to get on the floor since Jan. 4 due to COVID cases running rampant through the program isn’t helping any, either.
But maybe a mental reset from the time off will benefit the preseason Big Ten favorites. Dickinson is still 10th in the B1G in scoring (16.1 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (8.8 rpg), so it’s not like he’s out of this thing.
Trevion Williams, Purdue
Can a guy who comes off the bench become conference player of the year?
But there’s a legitimate argument for Williams as the league’s most dominant force when Matt Painter does put him on the floor. As measured on a per 40 minutes basis, Williams projects to an average of 17 rebounds, just edging out Cockburn’s 16.9 mark. He also rates sixth in the B1G at 60.9% from the field.
At just a shade over 20 minutes per game, Williams has no chance at player of the year unless he starts playing about 10 more minutes a game. Preserving him to play those minutes in March might be Painter’s best move in the long run, though.
Pete Nance, Northwestern
Nance has no chance at this by merit of playing for Northwestern. No Wildcat has ever been Big Ten player of the year. And the Cats appear to be an NIT-caliber team at best.
But Nance is quietly putting together what’s shaping up to be the best season for a Wildcat since Evan Eschmeyer was named a second team all-American in 1999. And that deserves some recognition.
Nance is seventh in the B1G in scoring (17.1 ppg), eighth in rebounding (7.7 rpg), fifth in 3-point shooting (45.7%) and fifth in blocks (1.57 per game).
All that might only be enough to earn second team all-Big Ten in a season as stacked as this, but Nance will probably be the best player on that second 5.