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Padding the Stats: Is Bryce McGowens the Big Ten’s Best Freshman?

March 02, 2022

The Big Ten released its women’s basketball awards on Tuesday, and to nobody’s surprise Alexis Markowski took home conference’s Freshman of the Year award. The men’s basketball awards will follow next week, and most seem to think it’s a forgone conclusion the Huskers will sweep the Freshman of the Year Awards this year.

Should that be the case?

Only one player in the history of the conference has won more Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards than Bryce McGowens; he has seven of them on his résumé. His latest outburst has him as the nation’s leading scorer among true freshmen. It’s an easy call, right?

Let’s take a quick look around the conference to see what the competition looks like before we answer that.

Juwan Howard signed the conference’s top recruiting class at Michigan led by the two highest-rated recruits in the league in Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate. Both players have been fine, but they haven’t been outstanding. Houstan got off to a slow start but eventually settled in and is averaging 10.7 points and shooting 36.6% from 3. Diabate is contributing 9.4 points and 5.7 rebounds for the Wolverines.

The third top-20 recruit that signed with a Big Ten team was Max Christie, who is starting on the wing for Michigan State. Christie has flashed his talent, but he’s only averaging 9.6 points while shooting 38% from the field (31.4% from 3).

The hero of the night on Tuesday wasn’t a 5-star recruit. It was Bellevue West graduate Chucky Hepburn, who banked in a 3-pointer with a couple seconds to go to lift Wisconsin past Purdue, clinching at least a share of the Big Ten title for the Badgers. Hepburn is a dogged defender who is starting for a top-10 team and conference champion, but he’s only averaging 8.1 points on 39.5% shooting (35.7% from 3) and 2.2 assists as the Badgers run their offense through Johnny Davis and Brad Davison.

Conversely, McGowens is putting up 17.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 33.3 minutes per game. He’s Nebraska’s top option and the first player on every scouting report, and he’s shooting 40.8% from the field, 28% from 3 and 83.8% from the foul line.

Ahead of Nebraska’s trip to Columbus on Tuesday, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said McGowens wouldn’t be getting his vote for Freshman of the Year, but for good reason: his primary competition is a Buckeye.

Malaki Branham wasn’t too far behind McGowens in the 247Sports Composite (38th compared to Bryce’s 29th). The 6-foot-5 shooting guard is averaging 12.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 48.4% from the field, 44.4% from 3 and 83.1% from the foul line. He may not be able to match McGowens in terms of volume, but he’s blowing the Husker freshman away in efficiency.

Furthermore, if voters weigh production within conference play more heavily, Branham’s stock takes a leap. He got off to a slow start in nonconference play before breaking out against Nebraska back in December to the tune of 35 points, and recently he’s been posting some big point totals. In Big Ten play, his scoring numbers jump up to 15.8 points per game on 51.8% from the field (48.2% from 3) and 81.7% from the free-throw line.

Regardless of the number of weekly awards McGowens may have captured, it is a legitimate race and to not at least consider what Branham has done as a voter would be lazy. He’s topped 20 six times in Big Ten play including two 30-point explosions, and his efficiency has been incredible. He’s also the go-to backcourt option for a top-25 team, which is incredibly impressive for a true freshman.

That being said, Branham is also sharing the court with one of the best players not only in the Big Ten but in the country in forward E.J. Liddell. Branham isn’t going to be first on anybody’s scouting report so long as Liddell is suiting up. Heck, I went back and rewatched that first meeting between the Huskers and Buckeyes and Branham’s big game was mostly the result of him taking advantage of poor defense from the Huskers as they focused their efforts on shutting down Liddell and Zed Key inside.

McGowens has had some rough outings, and his efficiency leaves much to be desired overall. Add that to Nebraska sitting alone in the Big Ten cellar and there are some legitimate arguments to make against him. However, you have to consider the context of his role, and under that scope what he’s accomplished becomes even more impressive. 

McGowens doesn’t have a Liddell to draw attention away from him. He’s been either the primary or secondary playmaker all year, and for much of the season he was doing so without any kind of spacing as the Huskers were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country. He has eight games of 20-plus points against high-major competition (and 11 overall). He has two double-doubles and he has five games with four assists, showing that although scoring is his bread and butter, he can still impact the game in other ways.

If voters were worried about rewarding McGowens for putting up empty numbers on a bad team, his performance in these last two games for Nebraska should dispel that notion somewhat. He’s totaled 51 points on 57.1% shooting (41.7% from 3) and 93.3% from the line in a pair of road wins for the Huskers — including a 78-70 win against the Buckeyes and Branham on Tuesday.

For what it’s worth, Branham put up 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting before fouling out late.

Heading into that game, I was planning to take a slightly different perspective when writing this column. Had Branham put up big numbers in a Buckeye win, I thought it would have gone a long way toward swaying voters in his direction.

Now, I think McGowens locked up the award this week with his performance in Columbus, because he was terrific. He’s carried a heavy load on his slight shoulders all season and has continued to progress and grow despite all the setbacks he and the Huskers have encountered. 

Now, he’s playing his best basketball of the season and he’s bringing the Huskers along with him. Bryce McGowens is the best freshman in the Big Ten this season.

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