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2015-16 Big Ten Basketball: Non-Conference Awards

With Big Ten play starting this upcoming week, we look back and hand out our hoops awards and superlatives for the non-conference season.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Team Awards

Best Team: Michigan State

Michigan State is 13-0, setting a school record for consecutive wins to start a season, and one of five unbeaten teams remaining. Those wins weren't easy to attain either. Seven were against schools in the KenPom top 100, including #2 Kansas and #6 Louisville. The Spartans aren't just the best team in the Big Ten. They're the best team in the country*.

*When Denzel Valentine is healthy.

Worst Team: Rutgers

Not only is Rutgers the only Big Ten team with a losing record, Rutgers is more than 100 spots lower (261st) than the second-worst Big Ten team on KenPom (#150 Minnesota).

Most Pleasantly Surprising Team: Purdue

In the preseason, Purdue was pegged to be a potential Big Ten contender, but most, myself included, believed that the Boilermakers would fall into the second tier of Big Ten teams below Michigan State and Maryland. However, Purdue proved itself to be one of the nation's best teams during the non-conference schedule. Purdue is 12-1, all 12 of its wins, including five against top-100 teams, are by double digits, and its only loss was a tight one to #20 Butler in Indianapolis. As a result, the Boilermakers are fourth in the KenPom rankings and should be neck and neck with Michigan State for the Big Ten title.

Most Disappointing Team: Minnesota

There are a few different teams that could fill this slot. Wisconsin might be most people's choice given that UW is 8-5 with home losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee after starting at #17 in the AP poll, but I predicted this would be an underwhelming season for the Badgers. Ohio State may have been a popular pick until the Buckeyes shocked Kentucky. And Illinois would make sense, but it's difficult to label a team disappointing when its season was derailed by injuries before it even began. That leaves me with Minnesota, for whom I thought this would be a rebuilding year, but, at 6-6 with losses to Milwaukee and South Dakota, the Gophers' construction project could last much longer.

The "Change the Channel, It's Over" Team: Michigan

Michigan has been kind to its fans by not giving them any heart attacks in the first six weeks of the season. The Wolverines faced eight teams ranked outside the KenPom top 100 and beat all of them by at least 15 points with an average margin of victory of 35.4 points. They earned two top-100 wins (Texas and NC State), and, though those games were decided by less than 10 points, Michigan built double-digit leads in the second half in both. And U-M's three losses to Xavier, UConn, and SMU were by an average of 18 points as U-M was not competitive in the final 10 minutes in any of them. But, with the Big Ten season approaching, Michigan fans should test that their defibrillators still work.

Most Deceiving Record: Northwestern

Northwestern is 11-1 and should have a 12-1 non-conference record after its game with #276 Loyola (MD) ends tomorrow. However, that doesn't mean you should expect the Wildcats to contend for a Big Ten championship. None of their 11 wins were against a top-100 team, and they needed overtime to finish off the best three opponents that they beat (#118 Virginia Tech, #126 Columbia, and #148 DePaul). The only top-100 team that Northwestern has played is #10 North Carolina, and the Tar Heels led by as many as 20 points in the second half before winning by 11 points. Most likely, Northwestern isn't a bad team -- 45th on KenPom -- but NU isn't nearly as good as its record might suggest.

Individual Awards

Most Valuable Player: Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)

Being the best player on the best team doesn't guarantee that you're the best player in the conference, but Denzel Valentine is. He's second in the Big Ten in PPG (18.5), fourth in RPG (8.3), and first in APG (7.1), making him a triple-double threat in every game. Heck, he achieved that milestone twice in Michigan State's first 13 games. Further, not only is he versatile, he's efficient on the offensive end, posting the seventh-best offensive rating (124.8) among Big Ten players with a usage rate no lower than 20 percent, while owning the third-highest usage rate (29.2 pct.) in the conference. Valentine simply does many things very well, and it's why Michigan State is undefeated and the Big Ten's best team.

It'll be interesting to see if his current knee injury will affect his future performance.

Least Valuable Player: Dupree McBrayer (Minnesota)

Dupree McBrayer is a freshman guard who has had a rough adjustment to D-I basketball. McBrayer has played in all 12 of Minnesota's games, starting in three and averaging 18.0 MPG, but he's been a complete offensive liability. In his first eight games, he scored a total of 17 points on 3-of-27 shooting (11.1 pct.). That's not a misprint. He's been better in his last four games, tallying 31 points, but he's still struggling from the field (7-of-23 FG). The only way he can score is to get to the rim, which doesn't happen often, or the free-throw line, where more than half of his points are from. As a result, McBrayer's offensive rating is 80.3, which is 95th in the Big Ten out of the 96 players that have played at least 40 percent of their team's minutes. However, Rutgers' Greg Lewis, who is 96th on that list, contributes on the defensive end as a rebounder and rim protector. McBrayer does neither of that. He's an OK passer, but it's not enough to make up for his shooting woes.

Best Freshman: Deyonta Davis (Michigan State)

I need to qualify this by mentioning that, if I had to hand out the Freshman of the Year award today, I wouldn't give it to Deyonta Davis because his role as a reserve (17.5 MPG) limits his impact. But no freshman makes his minutes count as much as him, which is why he's been the best of the bunch. His offensive rating (119.8) is the second-highest among Big Ten freshmen with a usage rate at least 20 percent. Indiana's Thomas Bryant is the one ahead of Davis (131.1 ORtg) thanks to his superb ability to score around the rim (76.3 2P%). However, Davis' proficiency as a rebounder and shot-blocker puts him ahead of Bryant.  If Davis played just a few more minutes per game, he'd be third in the Big Ten in total rebound percentage (17.5) and second in block percentage (11.6 pct.). The other contender I must mention is Purdue's Caleb Swanigan, who has the best per-game numbers (11.3 PPG and 9.2 RPG) because he earns many more minutes (27.6). However, his tendency to turn it over (27.9 pct.) kills his efficiency (98.4). So I'm going with Davis.

For now.

Most Improved: Caris LeVert (Michigan)

I know. How does a player that was projected to be a mid to late first-round NBA Draft pick before the season receive the title as most improved? Isn't this honor reserved for role players that blossom into stars? Sure, it can. But here's the thing: LeVert struggled as Michigan's go-to scorer last season. Some of that was because his teammates dropped like flies around him, offering little assistance. Some of that was because LeVert forced it too much on offense, which is why his efficiency suffered (101.1 ORtg). However, except for one poor game against SMU, he's been fantastic this season (17.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.8 APG). His offensive rating has shot up to 130.3 despite possessing the ball the same amount (26.1 usg%) because he is a more lethal scorer from inside and outside the arc, gets to the charity stripe almost twice as much, and owns one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the Big Ten. This even has been a vast improvement from his second season (111.7 ORtg) when he was second banana to Nik Stauskas and named to the All-Big Ten second team. Now LeVert is the star, and he's finally proving he can handle the load.

Best Volume Scorer: Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa)

This is a virtual tie between Jarrod Uthoff and Denzel Valentine. Not only are they in the top five in the Big Ten in shot rate, they average the same number of field-goal attempts per game (13.3) and almost the same PPG (Valentine: 18.5; Uthoff: 18.3). I give the slightest edge to Uthoff because he's a better shooter from the field (59.4 eFG% to 56.9).

Best on the Block: Robert Carter (Maryland)

The addition of Robert Carter is one of the reasons why Maryland's two-point shooting is the best in the country. Carter has finished 46-of-63 twos for the third-best percentage (73.0) in the Big Ten. Unlike the two Big Ten players ahead of him on this list (Maryland's Damonte Dodd and Indiana's Thomas Bryant), Carter doesn't rely on his teammates to create open baskets for him on the block. Only 35 percent of his makes at the rim have been assisted, while 88.2 percent of Dodd's and 63 percent of Bryant's have. Carter is able to catch the ball in the post and use a variety of moves to create space and slip past the defenders. It's what makes Carter so dangerous with the ball down low.

Best Sniper: Duncan Robinson (Michigan)

Duncan Robinson isn't just the best three-point shooter in the Big Ten but also one of the best overall. He's one of only four players that have made more than 60 percent of their threes (60.3 pct.), and he's one of only two to hit that mark while firing at least 50 attempts from deep (Virginia Tech's Justin Bibbs). This last point is important because Michigan has weaponized his three-point skill. Robinson's 47 made threes are the fifth-most in the country, and he's been very consistent, having knocked down at least three triples in nine straight games. Simply, if Robinson is left open outside, expect a splash.

Best Vision: Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)

Another honor for Denzel Valentine because he's been the Big Ten's best passer, ranking first in APG (7.1) and assist rate (45.1 pct.). However, his assists have dropped in recent weeks before his knee injury -- averaged 9.8 in his first five games and 5.1 in the seven thereafter -- so Iowa's Mike Gesell and Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh are on his heels.

Best Window Cleaner: Jordan Murphy (Minnesota)

No one expected a 6-foot-6 freshman small forward that was a three-star prospect to enter the Big Ten and become its best rebounder, but here we are. Not only is Jordan Murphy second in RPG (8.7), he's the only Big Ten player to rank in the top three in offensive (14.7 pct.) and defensive (25.6 pct.) rebound percent. Accordingly, Murphy has grabbed the top spot for total rebound percent (20.4 pct.). And, as Murphy continues to earn more playing time, his RPG should rise. In his first six games, he never saw more than 23 minutes on the court. In the six games thereafter, he's played at least 24 minutes in all of them and, thus, has averaged 12.2 RPG. Clearly, Murphy is a monster on the glass.

Best Thief: Johnny Hill (Purdue)

Texas-Arlington transfer Johnny Hill lost his job as Purdue's starting point guard five games into the season, but he has claim as the Big Ten's best pickpocket. Hill averages 1.5 SPG, which is tied for fifth in the conference, but his number stands out because he's earned it in only 18.4 MPG. Thus, his steal rate is 4.51 percent, which not only is tops in the Big Ten but is 24th in the country. Hill likely won't get his starting job back because P.J. Thompson has much better control of the offense (5.3 A:TO ratio), but he's carved out his role as a defensive pest off the bench. Opposing point guards must be prepared.

Best Rim Protector: A.J. Hammons (Purdue)

This should be a surprise to no one. A.J. Hammons was first or second in block rate in the Big Ten each of the past three seasons, and why would that change when he's a senior? Hammons is second (12.48 blk%) and just a smidge behind Penn State's Jordan Dickerson (12.53 blk%). Both of those are top-15 block rates nationally. But Hammons takes the title over Dickerson because he is first in BPG (2.9) and the anchor of the country's best shooting defense (38.1 eFG%) and second-best two-point defense (36.7 pct.). Offenses have feared attacking inside against Purdue, and that's thanks to Hammons' presence.


Agree? Disagree? To whom would you have given these awards? Tell us below!