Padding the Stats: Did the Big Ten Get its Awards Right?
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Did the Big Ten Get its Awards Right?

February 28, 2018

On Monday, the Big Ten released its postseason honors as determined by both the coaches and the media. There weren’t too many surprises and the two voting entities were fairly similar, but there were some notable differences.

One player the coaches and media differed on was Nebraska’s own James Palmer Jr. The coaches named him to the All-Big Ten First Team, while the media had him on the Second Team.

To be honest, I can’t really argue against either designation. Only two players — consensus Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State and Penn State’s Tony Carr — averaged more points in conference play than Palmer. Nebraska finished fourth in the conference and Palmer’s incredibly hot stretch in the middle of the league schedule was the primary reason for that. It’s easy to see why the coaches — who had to game-plan for him throughout the year — held him in such high regard and spoke so highly of him after games against Nebraska.

However, as I wrote back when Palmer started to emerge as a viable first-team candidate, he wasn’t playing at that same level all year long. His first six conference games were far less impactful. And if you look at his last three (39 points on 16-of-38 shooting with 10 assists and 11 turnovers), he didn’t exactly close out the season strong. 

Overall, Palmer is a volume scorer and decent distributor on average efficiency (and below-average shooting from deep). Because of that lack of upper-echelon efficiency, a second-team nod is justifiable.

The media bumped Palmer in favor of Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ. Happ is an incredible player who earned All-America honors on a veteran Badgers team that finished towards the top of the Big Ten standings last year and made a run in March. 

Happ’s counting stats are still pretty impressive — 18.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in Big Ten play — but his efficiency has taken a nose-dive this season as he’s turning the ball over 3.1 times per game, shooting just 49 percent inside the arc on shots mostly all around the rim (and 1-of-7 outside of it) and converting just 54.5 percent of his nearly seven free-throw attempts per game. Oh, and the Badgers finished 14-17 overall and 7-11 inside the league.

Happ is a terrific player, his defensive impact can’t be captured in those numbers alone, he doesn’t have much around him, but based on how a lot of the other voting went, I don’t see how he earned a first-team nod this year.

In fact, if you look at the second team, Indiana’s Juwan Morgan is sitting right there. Morgan was one of the most improved players in the conference this year and put up incredibly comparable stats to Happ on much better efficiency — 17.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.9 turnovers, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 58 percent form he field, 37.5 percent from 3 and 56.8 percent from the foul line. 

Morgan had only slightly more help around him and the Hoosiers finished 16-14 overall and 9-9 in the league. 

Bates-Diop and Carr along with Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (the leading scorers on the top two teams in the league) were the four First Team players by both voting pools. 

Purdue’s Vince Edwards was a second-team pick by both groups, which is fair. Honestly, when I wrote my piece looking at Palmer’s chances I thought he deserved Purdue’s spot on the First Team but the other Edwards closed out the reason really strong including a 40-point outburst.

The last two spots on the media team were occupied by good players on winning teams that had solid yet unspectacular seasons. Michigan’s Moritz Wagner (13.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.3 turnovers, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks per game while shooting 51.7 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from 3 and 73.5 percent from the line) and Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate (12.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.1 turnovers, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks while shooting 55.8 percent from the field, 30 percent from 3 and 64.3 percent from the free-throw line).

To compare, Isaac Haas of Purdue (which had the same Big Ten record as Ohio State and a better one than Michigan) is averaging 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting an absurd 60.9 percent from the field and 71.7 percent from the line.

Heck, Isaac Copeland’s numbers (13.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 turnovers, 0.9 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3 and 71.7 percent from the free-throw line) aren’t too far off Wagner’s, and Copeland was just an honorable-mention pick.

The media made double-double machine Jordan Murphy a second-team pick despite Minnesota’s terrible record. Murphy was a 20 and 12 guy in the nonconference and looked like the early favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year, but the Gophers fell apart and his play suffered as well. Murphy led Minnesota over the whole season with 17.0 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, but in league play those numbers were down to 14.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per game while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 67.5 percent from the foul line. He also turned the ball over twice as often as he dished out an assist and didn’t offer much rim protection as an undersized power forward. Point guard Nate Mason took over the scoring lead at 18.6 points per game in the Big Ten.

The third team for the media consisted of Murphy, Haas, Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. (the best defensive big in the conference) and Cassius Winston (the best distributor and 3-point shooter in the league), and Maryland’s Anthony Cowan.

Cowan has a strong argument to be considered for the second team ahead of the likes Wagner or Tate. Despite losing a starter in Justin Jackson early in the year, the sophomore point guard elevated his game and led the Terrapins at 16.8 points, 5.7 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 39.8 percent from 3 and 81.6 percent from the free-throw line. His overall field goal percentage is down at 42.8 percent because he's shooting under 45 percent inside the arc and takes almost seven 3s per game and he turns the ball over 2.7 times per game, but he’s still pretty efficient and incredibly productive. Individually, I’d say Cowan did more than either of the two players I mentioned.

One of the biggest differences between the two groups is that the coaches had Tate as a second-teamer while the media simply had him as an honorable mention pick, instead having Murphy on the second team (as mentioned above) and Michigan State’s Nick Ward on the third team. 

Ward is a solid player who had a fine season for the Spartans (10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 61.3 percent from the field), but he doesn’t belong on one of the three teams. Once again, Copeland had as much or more of a claim in terms of individual performance than Ward did, and there were a few wings such as Penn State’s Lamar Stevens or Maryland’s Kevin Huerter or Indiana’s Robert Johnson that could have gotten a look, but if we want to keep it just to comparable bigs, Penn State’s Mike Watkins had the better season.

Watkins put up 12.8 points on a ridiculous 70 percent from the field, 9.1 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals. He made a massive impact for the Nittany Lions on both sides of the floor, and Huskers fans saw what a difference he makes for that team in Nebraska’s two games against Penn State (an overtime loss for Nebraska with him, a double-digit win without).

Ultimately, when deciding postseason honors, I tend to value production, efficiency and team success — in that order. I don’t feel the need to reward the best teams with multiple selections just because the team won a lot of games. Michigan State and Purdue are at the top of the conference because they legitimately go three or four deep with players who had fantastic seasons. On the other hand, Ohio State’s success was built upon Bates-Diop elevating himself into the player of the year.

With all of that said, here is how I would have voted if I had been asked to take part in the media poll.  

First Team: Bates-Diop, Bridges, Carr, C. Edwards, Palmer.

Second Team: Cowan, V. Edwards, Haas, Happ, Morgan.

Third Team: Jackson, Murphy, Wagner, Watkins, Winston. 

I think both groups nailed most of the individual awards — Bates-Diop as Player of the Year, Jackson Jr. as Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year and Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann as Coach of the Year.

Tim Miles had a strong case for the coach award — and we know at least Nebraska radio play-by-play man Kent Pavelka voted for him, but while Miles took Nebraska from 12th to fourth, Holtmann took the Buckeyes from 10th to tied for second in his first year on the job.

The coaches’ Sixth Man of the Year award was given to Michigan’s Duncan Robinson (7.9 points per game, 37.5 percent from 3), which is an odd choice considering freshman Jordan Poole (7.6 points per game, 41.9 percent from 3) arguably had a better season for the Wolverines. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really find an obvious answer for the sixth-man award this year. Isaiah Roby might have had a strong case, but he started more than half of Nebraska’s Big Ten games so it’s hard to justify calling him a reserve any more.

So there you have it, my long and perhaps rambling at times thoughts on the Big Ten postseason honors. I think it’s clear based on looking at this that there are plenty of talented players in this conference (I didn’t even touch on most of the honorable mentions), which makes the poor performance of the league as a whole outside the teams at the top all the more disappointing.

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