Best Team: Wisconsin
This is a no-brainer.
In the preseason, Wisconsin was considered the consensus favorite in the Big Ten. Whereas every other Big Ten team had at least one significant question mark, whether it was Michigan and Michigan State experiencing a mass exodus of talent to the NBA, Ohio State relying on a heavy dose of freshmen and transfers, or Nebraska needing to find an offense other than "Shoot it, Terran!", the Badgers were returning every key contributor other than Ben Brust from a team that was an Aaron Harrison three-pointer away from competing for a national championship. Accordingly, the projected Big Ten hierarchy was Wisconsin at the top with everyone else craning their necks to stare way up.
Nothing happened to alter this hierarchy during the non-conference portion of the season. Wisconsin has been far and away the best team in the Big Ten, and not even playing the most difficult non-conference schedule slowed the Badgers down. Despite facing six teams in the KenPom Top 100 and five in the Top 50, they still earned an 11-1 record with their only loss to Duke -- the second-best team in the country that needed an uncharacteristic jump-shooting performance to topple Wisconsin in Madison. And what's been most impressive is that Wisconsin is overpowering these teams, even those in the top 100, as 10 of the Badgers' 11 wins have been by double digits. Utter domination.
Barring injuries, no team will stop Wisconsin from running away with the Big Ten.
Runner-Ups: None. Seriously.
Worst Team: Northwestern
This was a two-team race to the bottom. Should the dishonor of being the Big Ten's worst team after non-conference play be given to Northwestern or Rutgers? Northwestern was much more, um, I guess the word I'm looking for is "consistent." The Wildcats have beaten every opponent outside the KenPom Top 125, with some of those being a bit too close for comfort, and have lost to every opponent in the KenPom Top 125. On the other hand, Rutgers has been on a hellish roller-coaster ride. Sure, the Scarlet Knights have two losses (No. 144 St. Francis (PA) and No. 163 Saint Peter's) worse than any loss Northwestern has suffered, but they also have two wins (No. 62 Vanderbilt and No. 123 Clemson) better than any win Northwestern has earned. It was a very close call, but, because the Scarlet Knights have at least shown they can compete with and even beat above average opponents, Northwestern sits at the bottom of the totem pole.
Most Pleasantly Surprising Team: Maryland
Before the season, there were about six to eight Big Ten schools most believed could contend for second place behind favorite Wisconsin. Schools like Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State were given a greater chance to do so because of their recent success, while Maryland was expected to be more of a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. And this seemed more likely after it was announced Maryland's star player, Dez Wells, should miss the second half of the non-conference slate with a broken wrist.
Yet, despite Wells' absence, Maryland has been the second-best team in the Big Ten. The Terrapins have a shiny 11-1 record with neutral-site wins against Arizona State and Iowa State, a road win at Oklahoma State, and a respectable loss to top-five Virginia. The Terrapins have been able to sustain their surprising success thanks to the improved play of Jake Layman and instant contribution provided by freshman Melo Trimble. Though it will be interesting to see how Wells' return for the Big Ten season will impact the dynamics of this Maryland team, it's difficult to argue that another Big Ten team has been more pleasantly surprising the first six weeks given the circumstances.
Runner-Ups: Indiana and Minnesota
Most Disappointing Team: Nebraska
You'd think Michigan, a team with a 7-5 record that includes home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan one season after winning the Big Ten by three games, would be the most disappointing team, but Nebraska was nice enough to save Michigan from that humiliation. Though the Huskers, also presumed to contend for second place in the Big Ten, have a better record than Michigan, their resume is arguably worse. They have only one quality win (a squeaker over Cincinnati in 2OT), whereas Michigan has two, and suffered embarrassing losses to Incarnate Word and Hawaii -- both are outside the KenPom Top 150. And this doesn't even account for the fact that Nebraska was on the verge of falling victim to a third upset against No. 251 LMU before surviving in overtime.
While an argument can still be made that Michigan has been the more disappointing team, I give the nod to Nebraska because, unlike Michigan, the Huskers are not replacing their entire core. John Beilein and Michigan have been tasked with replacing the production vacated by Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, NBA Draft picks Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, and quality big men Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. On the other hand, Nebraska returned most of its key players from a team that went 11-7 in the Big Ten and participated in the NCAA Tournament last season. Thus, that this Nebraska team with the same core is struggling so much has been more disappointing.
The "Turn Off the TV at Half" Team: Ohio State
This distinction is given to the Big Ten team that has best averted the drama of close, end-of-game situations. Sometimes this is a positive. Sometimes this is a negative. And no Big Ten team has experienced both sides of that coin more than Ohio State due to its weak strength of schedule. The Buckeyes have 10 wins with only one against a team in the KenPom Top 125 (No. 107 Marquette). They won all of them by double digits, and their average margin of victory is an absurd 32 points. They have absolutely eviscerated any and all inferior competition they have faced and turned the second half into 20 minutes of garbage time. However, Louisville and North Carolina did the same to Ohio State in its only two marquee non-conference games, leading the Buckeyes by 17 and 12 points at halftime, respectively. So, if you're a fan of late-game drama, buzzer-beaters, and close calls, no team has forced you to change the channel more at halftime than OSU.
Runner-Ups: Wisconsin and Iowa
Most Deceiving Record: Penn State
In most cases, a 12-1 record is an indicator of a very good team. But Penn State is not most cases. Though the Nittany Lions' 12-1 record marks their best start since the 1995-96 season, this has been the result of continually lucking out against Charmin-soft foes. During their current 10-game winning streak, the Lions have faced only one top-100 team. In the other nine games, they won by no more than four points in five of them and no more than eight points in eight. This is a Penn State team that has needed late second-half runs and fortuitous breaks just to beat mid-majors. And the Lions' only loss was to Charlotte, who resides outside the top 100. Although Penn State has played much better basketball in the past two weeks, this is not a sign of a team that will be able to compete with the numerous top-50 teams in the Big Ten on a regular basis. And, if the Lions are able to, it seems unlikely their current streak of good luck and bounces will persist.
Runner-Ups: Michigan State
Most Valuable Player: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
Like Wisconsin was considered the consensus preseason Big Ten favorite, Frank Kaminsky was considered the consensus preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. And, because Kaminsky has lived up to his preseason billing, Wisconsin has been able to live up to its. Kaminsky is averaging 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, which are eighth and third in the Big Ten, respectively, and his scoring production has been very consistent, notching double digits in every game except for a six-point dud against Georgetown. But what has always made him a standout player is his offensive efficiency. His offensive rating (120.2) is the highest among any Big Ten player with a usage rate as high as his (26.3 pct.) because he's a lethal threat from any spot on the floor (56.4 2P%, 42.9 3P%, 70.5 FT%). While other players have made strong statements that they are the best in the Big Ten, Kaminsky has done enough to remain the leader in the clubhouse in the Big Ten Player of the Year race before the Big Ten season begins next week.
Runner-Ups: Russell (OSU), Blackmon (IU), Ferrell (IU), Newbill (PSU), Rice (ILL)
Least Valuable Player: Walter Pitchford, Nebraska
No Big Ten player has regressed as much as Walter Pitchford. Though he was no more than a complementary player as a stretch big man, averaging 9.2 points per game, Pitchford was one of the most efficient players in the conference last season. In fact, he had the eighth-highest offensive rating (121.1) among all Big Ten players because he made 41 percent of his threes and turned over the basketball only on the rarest occasions. But this season has been a complete role reversal for the Husker many thought would be a top-25 player in the conference. Of the 93 Big Ten players that have played at least 40 percent of their respective team's minutes, Pitchford is 91st in offensive rating (81.6) with a usage rate (18.2 pct.) similar to the one he had last season. This is because his shooting numbers have plummeted (58.0 eFG% to 44.0 eFG%) while his turnover rate has skyrocketed (6.8 pct. to 18.8 pct.). And he's been a worse rebounder, too. Accordingly, Pitchford's been a significant reason why Nebraska has been so disappointing this year.
Runner-Ups: Webster (NEB), Chatman (MICH), Demps (NW), Taylor (PSU)
Best Freshman: D'Angelo Russell, OSU
While Maryland's Melo Trimble and Purdue's Isaac Haas have proven to be very good freshmen, there truly are only two candidates vying to be the Big Ten's best freshman: Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell and Indiana's James Blackmon, Jr. Not only have Russell and Blackmon been the two best freshmen, they have also been two of the best players in the Big Ten overall. Russell has been Ohio State's do-it-all star, averaging 17.2 points, 5.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. And though Russell has shouldered much of the burden for the Buckeyes -- his usage rate of 29.8 percent is fourth in the Big Ten -- he still has been very efficient (115.5 off. rating), which is difficult to do with that type of work load. On the other hand, Blackmon has been Indiana's marksman, averaging 17.6 points per game with an incredible shooting line of 50.6 2P%, 43.3 3P%, and 88.4 FT%. Accordingly, Blackmon has the second-best offensive rating (125.2) among all Big Ten players with a usage rate greater than 24 percent. They are neck and neck here.
But, at this moment, I must give the edge to Russell because he's had more of an all-around impact. In addition to being somewhat of a volume scorer, he's also been a facilitator, posting an assist rate of 31.8 percent, which is seventh in the Big Ten. Blackmon's assist rate? 8.9 percent. Plus, Russell's made his presence known on the defensive end by generating turnovers with steals, which Blackmon cannot claim. Then, add in that Blackmon has had the assistance of Yogi Ferrell, who also has been one of the Big Ten's best players (125.5 off. rating, 24.2 usage rate), and what Russell has achieved has been more impressive. But this'll be a fun race to follow in the coming months.
Runner-Ups: Blackmon (IU), Trimble (UMD), Haas (PUR), Edwards (PUR)
Most Improved: Jake Layman, Maryland
One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, Maryland's been a pleasant surprise, even with the absence of Dez Wells, has been the substantial improvement of Jake Layman. Last season, the 6-foot-9 stretch forward was solid, averaging 11.7 points and five rebounds per game. However, he had a somewhat small role in the offense (18.2 usage rate), and his shooting numbers were just alright (49.8 eFG%) as he tended to hang around the arc and launch triples. This season, though, Layman has transformed into a bonafide star. Yes, Layman averages 15.8 points and 5.7 rebounds and has scored in double digits in every single game, but what sticks out the most is the superb surge in his offensive efficiency (109.7 to 120.9) despite having a much higher usage rate (18.2 to 25.0). He's done this because he has been attacking the rim relentlessly as evidenced by his boost in 2P% (44.1 to 60.9 pct.) and free-throw rate (28.5 to 61.9). If this continues, Maryland may just have a three-headed monster in Layman, Wells, and Melo Trimble.
Runner-Ups: Hayes (WIS), Williams (IU), Hill (ILL), Valentine (MSU), Scott (OSU)
Best Volume Scorer: D.J. Newbill, PSU
D.J. Newbill has been a volume scorer for Penn State ever since he arrived as a transferee from Southern Miss. In his first two seasons at PSU, Newbill's shot rate hovered around 28 percent, which not only led the Lions but also ranked third and sixth in the Big Ten. This hasn't changed this season either as Newbill has taken 29.5 percent of his team's shots while he has been on the court, which is fourth in the conference. But the key difference is that, this season, Newbill is no longer just a chucker. Rather, Newbill has been much better as a shot-maker. He's shooting a bit above 50 percent from spots around the free-throw line and near 40 percent from downtown, which are bests for him at PSU. Accordingly, Newbill is leading the Big Ten in scoring (21.4 PPG) and doing it in an efficient manner (116.9 off. rating), which is why he's the Big Ten's best volume scorer.
Runner-Ups: Russell (OSU), Rice (ILL), Blackmon (IU), Kaminsky (WIS)
Best on the Block: Gabriel Olaseni, Iowa
Gabriel Olaseni isn't limited to the low post -- only 59 percent of his shots originate from within five feet of the rim -- but he certainly is at his best when he operates down there. The Iowa big man has converted 76 percent of his shots at the rim, which is fourth in the Big Ten. Though Olaseni doesn't make the highest percentage of his shots at the rim -- for example, Indiana's Hanner Mosquera-Perea finishes 83 percent of his attempts around the rim -- he earns this honor because he hasn't relied on putbacks as often as Mosquera-Perea to tally those close-range points. Instead, Olaseni has shown he's more adept at posting up on the block and should head down there more frequently.
Runner-Ups: Mosquera-Perea (IU), Walker (MSU), Schilling (MSU), Haas (PUR)
Best Sniper: Marc Loving, OSU
If I'd mentioned in the preseason that Marc Loving would be the Big Ten's best three-point shooter, you likely would have laughed in my face. Why? Last season, Loving made only 15-of-58 threes (25.9 pct.). Yet, this season, there's no one even close to competing with Loving for the title as the Big Ten's best sniper. Loving has drained 24-of-41 triples (58.5 pct.), and the next player on the list, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine, is only at 50 percent. While making half of one's three-pointers is nothing to scoff at, it just isn't in the vicinity of what Loving is doing outside the arc. Though there's little doubt that Loving practiced on his jumper during the offseason, it seems he really has benefited from Shannon Scott's emergence as a legitimate point guard. All 24 of Loving's made three-pointers have been assisted, which usually has been the result of Scott finding the open Loving on the perimeter. If Scott can continue to weave his way into the paint and kick it out to Loving behind the line, he very well will continue to be deadly from three.
Runner-Ups: Valentine (MSU), Mason (MINN), Hollins (MIN), Ferrell (IU)
Best Vision: Shannon Scott, OSU
As discussed briefly in the foregoing section, Shannon Scott has emerged as a true point guard now that gritter, hustler, leader, and winner Aaron Craft has graduated. Last season, Scott had an above-average assist rate (25.5 pct.), but he has transformed into one of the nation's best point guards. He is second in the nation in assists per game (7.8) and seventh in assist rate (41.4 pct.), and he leads the Big Ten in both categories. He has notched double-digit assists in four games already, even setting an Ohio State record with 16 assists in a single game against Sacred Heart. Though he still has issues with his shot, he has completely redefined his skillset and helped turn around OSU's offense.
Runner-Ups: Mathieu (MINN), Trice (MSU), McIntosh (NW), Russell (OSU)
Best Window Cleaner: Branden Dawson, MSU
Branden Dawson has always been the perfect example that one doesn't need to be extremely tall to be an exceptional rebounder. Whereas the four players listed as runner-ups below are no shorter than 6-foot-9, Dawson is listed at 6-foot-6. Yet, because of his athleticism and uncanny ability to know how missed shots will ricochet off the iron, he leads the Big Ten in rebounds per game (8.5). Plus, he has demonstrated that he can grab boards on either end of the court. His defensive rebounding rate of 24.4 percent is second in the Big Ten; his offensive rebounding rate of 14 percent is sixth in the Big Ten. So don't let size fool you. When Dawson is on the court, expect him to clean up the glass.
Runner-Ups: Costello (MSU), Haas (PUR), Kaminsky (WIS), Olaseni (IOWA)
Best Pickpocket: Deandre Mathieu, Minnesota
Shannon Scott, who may be the best defender on the perimeter in the Big Ten, would be a very worthy recipient of this honor, but I decided to shed some praise on diminutive Deandre Mathieu. The generously listed 5-foot-9 ball of energy is like a Tasmanian devil on the hardwood. His speed allows to be everywhere on the court in a flash, and there always seems to be chaos wherever he winds up. This is why he's second in the Big Ten in steals per game (2.7) and third in steal rate (5.15 pct.). And it certainly doesn't hurt his case that he is a key cog in the turnover-forcing machine that's Minnesota, which is third nationally in defensive turnover rate. He and Scott will continue to duel for this title.
Runner-Ups: Scott (OSU), Mason (MINN), Morris (MINN), Mack (RUT)
Best Rim Protector: A.J. Hammons, Purdue
A.J. Hammons has been an enigma at Purdue. At 7-feet and with his skillset, Hammons should dominate inside the paint, which he is able to do from time to time. But that's the problem: it's only from time to time. Too often Hammons will disappear offensively. However, he almost always is a force defensively, protecting the rim at all costs. He led the Big Ten in blocks per game and block rate last season and is on his way to doing so again this season. Right now, he is averaging 2.9 blocks per game and owns a block rate of 15.8 percent, which is fifth in the nation. Though Purdue has been below average defensively, one area where they have thrived is two-point defense. Why? Hammons.
Runner-Ups: Olaseni (IOWA), A. Williams (OSU), Dodd (UMD), Walker (MINN)
Best Game: Duke 80, Wisconsin 70
From the moment it was announced Wisconsin would host Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, it was hyped as one of the best non-conference matchups this season because it would feature two teams that were true national championship contenders. And, though the game wasn't decided in the final possession, both teams played up to their caliber. Both offenses shined as each team topped 1.10 points per possession, but it was Duke that put on a show. Despite Wisconsin using its pack-line defense to sucker Duke into shooting 16 midrange jumpers, the Blue Devils knocked down a remarkable 12 of them. There was little the Badgers could do other than to try and keep pace, but it was too much to overcome. Wisconsin stayed within six points most of the game before Duke pulled away late, winning by 10 points. Though it was a loss for Wisconsin, the game indicated that seeing both teams in the Final Four wouldn't be a shock.
Runner-Ups: Notre Dame 79, MSU 78 (OT); Wisconsin 68, Georgetown 65
Worst Game: Nebraska 50, LMU 42 (OT)
I had the misfortune of watching this ugly affair live. It wasn't just that Nebraska once again struggled against a substandard opponent. It was that neither team could do anything remotely competent offensively. How else do you explain that LMU had four shots to win in the final two minutes, while Nebraska had zero, and made none of them? How else do you explain that, at the end of regulation, after 50 possessions had been played, the score was tied at 35-35? How else do you explain that there were 33 combined turnovers and only 28 combined made field goals once Nebraska had finally pulled away in overtime? It was a game that made me question why I write about this sport.
Runner-Ups: Eastern Michigan 45, Michigan 42; Virginia 45, Rutgers 26
Best Win: Iowa 60, North Carolina 55
Entering this Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup, I had given Iowa a rough time because the Hawkeyes had not beaten a quality opponent in quite some time. In fact, Iowa had lost its previous eight meetings against the KenPom Top 75 dating back to last season, and now they had to travel to Chapel Hill to take on then-No. 12 North Carolina. Given Iowa's recent history, this seemed like a long shot. Yet, in a tie game with a little over a minute on the clock, Mike Gesell drove through the lane, took the contact, and somehow finished an off-balanced layup high off the glass while drawing the foul. He would make three more free throws the rest of the way to secure the upset victory for Iowa. Not only was a road win at the Dean Dome the best win for the Big Ten thus far, it was the decisive victory that locked up the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the boys from the Midwest.
Runner-Ups: Maryland 73, Oklahoma State 64; Wisconsin 69, Oklahoma 56
Worst Loss: NJIT 72, Michigan 70
What's crazy is that Michigan's loss to NJIT and Michigan State's loss to Texas Southern may be two of the biggest upsets in college basketball in the past decade. The Wolverines and Spartans were both considered top-20 teams when these games were played, facing teams that were barely in the top 300. The odds that either Michigan or Michigan State lose these games are about one percent, maybe two. And, yet, both Big Ten schools from The Mitten suffered these losses within the span of a few weeks. It was a close call, but, because Michigan was at full strength while Michigan State was without Branden Dawson, the Wolverines were ultimately saddled with this dishonor.
Runner-Ups: Texas Southern 71, MSU 64 (OT); Incarnate Word 74, Nebraska 73
Best Finish: Penn State 72, Cornell 71
Illinois, Purdue, and Northwestern have tallied buzzer-beaters, but nothing tops this:
Runner-Ups: Illinois 62, Missouri 59; Purdue 87, BYU 85 (OT)
Worst Finish: Incarnate Word 74, Nebraska 73
As I reflect on this game, I'm still unsure how Nebraska choked this game away. With 31 seconds left, the Huskers hit a free throw to take a five-point lead. Then, after Incarnate Word countered with a quick layup, all hell broke loose. Nebraska proceeded to twice foul three-point shooters, who both made two free throws, and twice throw errant passes for turnovers -- the last one on an out-of-bounds play with a one-point lead and 6.7 seconds left. This provided Incarnate Word an opportunity to sink a game-winner and stun the Huskers in Lincoln. Incarnate Word didn't fail to capitalize:
Runner-Ups: North Florida 73, Purdue 70; Eastern Washington 88, Indiana 86