Casting our ballots: Big Ten

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
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Editor’s Note: To see our expert picks for each of the nation’s 12 top conferences, click here. To cast your vote in these races, visit SportsNation.

Here’s a quick assessment of the Big Ten player and coach of the year races as the regular season comes to a close:

Player of the Year

For months, Jared Sullinger looked like the favorite. He carried the Buckeyes to a top-5 ranking and looked like the front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year honors early and a strong candidate for national player of the year accolades a year after being named a finalist for the Wooden and Naismith awards.

With Ohio State in a position to win a share of Big Ten title, Sullinger is still a candidate. But Draymond Green has emerged as the front-runner.

[+] EnlargeGreen-Izzo
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTom Izzo, left, and Draymond Green have Michigan State in position to compete for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The two have comparable numbers, but Green’s leadership has been vital for a Spartans team that’s already won a share of the Big Ten championship. Tom Izzo’s team features transfers, young players and veterans, a concoction that might not have worked without Green’s leadership.

His numbers are quite impressive, too. He’s been mentioned in the national player of the year conversation. And Green has finished strong, while Sullinger has recorded just 17 points in his team’s last two games.

Sullinger and Green have separated themselves from the other contenders in the Big Ten. Purdue’s Robbie Hummel has overcome two major knee injuries and led the Boilermakers to a likely slot in the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor struggled early, but he’s finished strong, proven by his big-time performance at Ohio State over the weekend. Indiana’s Cody Zeller will win Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, but he’s certainly a future Big Ten player of the year (if he stays for another year) considering how he’s changed Tom Crean’s program. In most years, Northwestern’s John Shurna would earn more consideration with the Wildcats going after their first-ever NCAA tourney bid.

But it really comes down to Green and Sullinger.

And for me, it’s no longer a competition. Green has been a star for Izzo’s team since the start of the season. He’s a talented player whose toughness has rubbed off on the rest of his roster. He doesn’t have Sullinger’s weapons, but he’s helped mold the Spartans into the better team. Hard to make a case for Big Ten Player of the Year that doesn’t involve Green.

Coach of the Year

Now, this is a tough vote.

Tom Izzo has positioned Michigan State to compete for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And he’s done it without a lottery pick. The Spartans are young at multiple positions. But with Izzo in charge, they still earned a share of the Big Ten title. And if they beat Ohio State Sunday, they’ll have it to themselves.

Tom Crean won three Big Ten games last season. The Hoosiers were not relevant on the national scene. This year, however, they’ve defeated three top-5 teams and won 23 games, 11 more victories than last season’s squad.

John Beilein has limited size and depth, but the Wolverines have been one of the best teams in the Big Ten and the nation. He lost Darius Morris but facilitated the success of first-year point guard Trey Burke. And the Wolverines have only lost one game this season at home. Beilein’s leadership has been vital.

I think Izzo, Beilein and Crean are on top of a lot of lists. But they’re not alone.

Bo Ryan is going to dance again, despite losing two key pieces from last season’s team (Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil) and enduring a three-game losing skid at the start of Big Ten play. The Boilermakers lost JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. But under Matt Painter, this season’s squad has thrived and overcome recent off-court troubles and made a strong case for an at-large berth. Bill Carmody might lead Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament bid. He can’t be excluded.

But I think Izzo deserves the honor this season. He’s led the Spartans to national prominence with the grit and toughness that’s defined some of his best teams. After they lost their first two games of the season to Duke and UNC, the Spartans regrouped and became one of America’s best teams.

Izzo deserves credit for the way he’s guided the Spartans this season.

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