John Shurna. Jared Sullinger. Robbie Hummel. Draymond Green. Bo Spencer. Matt Gatens. Jordan Taylor. Just like that, in one year, 7 of the Big Ten’s 12 leading scorers will be lost to either graduation or the NBA.
Big Ten fans were treated to a loaded conference filled with parity in 2011-’12, in which any team could beat any other team on any given week. There was such a logjam at the top of the standings that Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State all ended up sharing a piece of the regular season title. With all this departing talent -faces which have become staples of the Big Ten- the upcoming season will mark a changing of the guard within the conference. Green won Big Ten Player of the Year in 2012, but who will take home the hardware this season? Here are five possible candidates:
Cody Zeller, 6-11 sophomore forward, Indiana
The peculiar thing about Indiana’s transformation from Big Ten doormat in 2010-’11 to Tournament contenders last season is the minimal change within their roster. Mainstays of the starting lineup -Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Verdell Jones- remained unchanged while the Hoosiers only significant loss was senior guard Jeremiah Rivers. The pieces were nearly identical except for one 6-foot-11 difference.
Zeller was a consistent scorer for Tom Crean –he was second to only Sullinger in points per 40 minutes- and even tied the team lead for steals per game. The Hoosiers’ big man ran the floor with ease to create fast breaks, something that will only increase with the arrival of freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell. The Washington, Ind.-native was thrown into the deep end of the pool in his first year, going up against some of the nation’s best in Anthony Davis, Meyers Leonard, Sullinger and Green. He beat many of them down the floor, but at times was physically overmatched in the post. He was 14th in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage (six slots behind Watford) and sixth in offensive rebounding percentage. Not horrible numbers, but certainly an area Zeller can improve upon this season, having bulked up more in the summer.
Barring injury, Zeller will be projected as a lottery pick in this year’s upcoming Draft (he could have left after last season). Putting on more muscle, becoming a dominant force in the post and leading the Hoosiers to a Big Ten title (something they’ll have to beat out Michigan for) will make Zeller a leading candidate for Big Ten POY.
Trey Burke, 6-0 sophomore guard, Michigan
Burke and Zeller dueled each other for Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and ended up each getting a share of the honor. This season, they will be going for a bigger prize in the conference’s POY.
The Wolverines’ assist-leader, who finished fourth in the Big Ten in assist percentage (28.6), will get another target to accompany Tim Hardaway Jr. The arrival of Glen Robinson III, my early favorite to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year, will give Michigan a powerful inside presence to help open up the floor and create opportunities for Burke.
As a freshman, Burke led Michigan in scoring, assists, steals, minutes –and somehow blocks. However, his effective field goal percentage of 50.2% was the third lowest of any Wolverine who played significant minutes last season. Burke has tremendous potential and NBA-quality talent, as it was rumored he would enter into the Draft last year. This year he and the Wolverines look to take new hardware back to Ann Arbor and not another early exit in the NCAA Tournament.
Deshaun Thomas, 6-7 junior forward, Ohio State
I’m pretty sure Robin never stole the spotlight from Batman. But in the case that Batman decides to leave Gotham after two years to earn millions in the NBA, somebody would have to fill in.
Thomas had an excellent sophomore campaign that was largely overshadowed on a national scale by Sullinger. The 6-7 forward had the highest effective field goal percentage of any Buckeye starter, at 57.4%, averaged 19.2 points per game in the NCAA Tournament (Sullinger averaged 17), made the most field goals of any Big Ten player with 244, but struggled on the boards, posting a 10.6 defensive rebounding percentage. From beyond the arc, Thomas shot the second-most three-pointers on the team (his 145 attempts trailed only William Buford’s 173), but made only 34.5% from long range.
This season, Thomas has an opportunity to raise his NBA Draft stock and take the reigns as the Buckeyes’ most impactful player. With Sullinger out of the picture, it will be his team to lead if he continues to improve on the great numbers he put up last season.
Trevor Mbakwe, 6-8 redshirt senior forward, Minnesota
If a fifth year of college is considered the “victory lap,” Trevor Mbakwe decided to win the race, run off the track and head down the road for lunch. After tearing his ACL seven games into last season, the Gopher forward was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Yep, that’s right, Mbakwe out Robbie Hummel-ed Robbie Hummel.
Putting Mbakwe on this list could either make me look really dumb or slightly less foolish, as it’s hard to know whether he is going to be the same player after having reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ligament. He has yet to play in a game since November 27, 2011.
If Mbakwe is able to perform the way he did prior to his injury, Minnesota will have one of the best rebounders and finishers in the Big Ten. In his fourth season (but first with Minnesota), Mbakwe’s defensive rebounding percentage (26%) was best in the conference, with an 11.8 offensive rebounding percentage good for third in the Big Ten. Mbakwe averaged a double-double that year and continued to excel last season, averaging 14 points-a-game and shooting over 60% from the field (granted, it was against seven subpar nonconference opponents).
Minnesota will be without departing, slumping senior Ralph Sampson III (a big loss in one sense, but not the other) and the 6-8 Mbakwe has the potential to be the big man in a starting five that includes 6-7 forward Rodney Williams, as well as guards Austin and Andre Hollins. If his knee cooperates, Mbakwe will have only one other problem this season, which Mbakwe tweeted the day he learned he would be returning: “I promise this will be my last year though. I’m running out of classes to take.”
Tim Frazier, 6-1 senior guard, Penn State
There are bad teams and then there are bad teams that actually show potential. Squads like Nebraska basketball and Indiana football fall into the former, while last season, I believed that Penn State hoops belonged in the latter.
Yes, the Talor Battle-less Nittany Lions finished tied for last in the Big Ten last season, much to the surprise of nobody. But fiery coach Pat Chambers fueled the passion of a scrappy team that averaged 6.8 steals-a-game and was led on the floor by Frazier. He averaged the second-most points of any Big Ten player, had the highest assist percentage in the nation and second-highest steal percentage in the conference. However, his effective field goal percentage was a less-than-stellar 44.5%.
I’m not sure any player in the Big Ten could be more valuable than his team this year than Frazier, who accounted for 30% of Penn State’s points last season and 18.5% of the team’s minutes. After spending the summer at the Deron Willliams Skills Academy and LeBron James Skills Academy, he’s poised to make an even bigger impact. Now, it is up to the rest of the Nittany Lions to help determine whether Frazier is the most valuable player on a respectable team. If not, Frazier –like Battle and Shurna before him- will be another great talent on a team that could not follow suit.
Notable snubs (and why):
Drew Crawford, Brandon Paul: Will score a lot of points…as their teams lose a lot of games
Christian Watford: The Hoosiers’ production will be divided in too many ways for Watford to emerge as a determining factor of the season’s success
Glen Robinson III, Sam Dekker, Yogi Ferrell, Mitch McGary, Gary Harris: Sorry kids, freshmen don’t win Big Ten Player of the Year