All-Big Ten selections: The Daily Illini sports staff breaks down conference award predictions

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Cameron Krasucki

Iowa senior center Luke Garza attempts to defend as junior guard Ayo Dosunmu drives through the lane during the game between Illinois and Iowa on Jan. 29 at State Farm Center. Dosunmu and Garza are the front runners for the Big Ten Player of the Year award.

By Brandon Simberg, Jackson Janes, The Daily Illini Sports Staff

Brandon Simberg and Jackson Janes both made their picks for the Big Ten regular-season awards, including the All-Big Ten First, Second and Third Teams and the Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year awards. Take a look at their picks and explanations below.

Brandon Simberg (Men’s basketball beat writer)

Selecting All-Big Ten nominees and Big Ten awards winners is a daunting and inconsistent task. There are so many different ways to evaluate a player and different metrics on both sides of the ball, as not all voters use the same formula when voting. For the sake of clarity, here is how I constructed my ballot.

  1. Winning: Did your team matter in the Big Ten this year? Did your games and moments matter? Putting up numbers is one thing, but did those numbers actually have a positive outcome on winning? I want to reward guys who played on good teams.

  2. Raw box score stats: Points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks don’t always tell the full story, but it’s still a good way to evaluate what a player did. However, I use them in conjunction with number three.

  3. Advanced stats: Advanced statistics like steals, blocks, assist rate and box plus/minus are a good indicator of how impactful someone was to their team’s success. When coupled with good raw box score numbers, that indicates a really strong season. I mention box plus/minus a lot. BPM is used to estimate the player’s contribution in points above league average per 100 possessions played and a key tool in measuring impact.

  4. Conference v. non-conference stats: There is no barometer for using entire season statistics or just conference, but I believe in using conference-only numbers, especially in this abbreviated season where some teams challenged themselves more in non-league games and some didn’t.

  5. Eye test: I watched a ton of Big Ten basketball this season — even Nebraska — so I have seen every player enough times. Sometimes you can just watch a guy and be like, “Oh, he’s good. He’s doing stuff.”

Also, a reminder: All-Big Ten teams do not have to be position-based, just the five best players. With that cleared up, let’s break down my selections.

Big Ten Player of the Year:

Luka Garza (Iowa)

For a large chunk of the season, I was leaning towards Ayo Dosunmu for Big Ten Player of the Year, as his team surged ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten standings. Then, Dosunmu got hurt, and I hate to dock him for that, but he missed three games. His case was also hurt by his team’s success in his absence, going 3-0, including a beatdown of then-No. 2 Michigan.

I shouldn’t have to defend Garza, but the man put up 21.9 points on insane 50%-36%-71% shooting splits. His defense was his downfall, but he still posted an incredible + 12.2 BPM, which led not only the Big Ten, but the entire country. Had Garza missed games at Michigan and Wisconsin, I’m not sure Iowa would have won those. Dosunmu had an incredible season, and if you pick him, I think that’s a totally reasonable selection. In a normal year he’s a surefire Big Ten Player of the Year lock, just not with the season Garza had.

Big Ten Coach of the Year:

Juwan Howard (Michigan)

Howard for Coach of the Year was a pretty easy selection. Michigan haters will say they played a “cupcake” schedule and postponed three games — which was not his decision at all — but the Wolverines were projected to finish in the middle of the pack and won the Big Ten in one of the league’s deepest years ever. That’s a no-brainer.

I’ll give a shout-out to Matt Painter for somehow dragging this Purdue roster to a double-bye in the Big Ten tourney. Brad Underwood did a good job as well. His decision to switch Jacob Grandison to the starting lineup sparked a winning streak, but Illinois was already projected to finish in the top two, so they didn’t necessarily overachieve that much. This is Howard’s award.

Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year:

Franz Wagner (Michigan) 

Wagner was a lock to me for DPOY, but I don’t think it’s publicly known how insane his defensive season was. Because of his versatility, Wagner was an advanced statistics machine. His +5.7 defensive BPM led the Big Ten and was the sixth-best in the country. He was one of just three Big Ten players to have a steal rate of over 2.6 and a block rate of over 3.3. He is also the league’s most versatile defender. At 6-foot-9, he can body up bigs when switched onto them and can stifle perimeter players.

He is also an incredible team defender on the help side, offering up rim protection. Countless times this year an opposing ball handler couldn’t drive because Wagner’s go-go-gadget arms were in the way. The Wolverines are 13 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Wagner on the floor, and their turnover rate nearly doubles, which is insane in itself, but Michigan finished fourth in defensive KenPom, so that was clearly a big deal. Wagner’s defensive season was historic and should be rewarded.

Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year:

Andre Curbelo (Illinois)

I flipped between Sam Sessoms, Chaundee Brown and Andre Curbelo all season for sixth man, but Curbelo’s late-season push in Dosunmu’s absence gave him the nod. Curbelo was sixth in the conference in assists and was a key part of Illinois’ win over Michigan, scoring 17 points.

All-Big Ten First Team:

Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois)

Franz Wagner (Michigan)

E.J. Liddell (Ohio State)

Trevion Williams (Purdue)

Luka Garza (Iowa)

There were three locks for me on the first team: Dosunmu, Garza and Wagner. Wagner’s raw numbers don’t strike you as “first-team” caliber, but the advanced metrics do. He was also the best player on the best team, and that’s an easy enough explanation.

From there, I considered four guys — Trayce Jackson-Davis, Trevion Williams, E.J. Liddell and Kofi Cockburn — for the last two spots. I still don’t feel great about my selections because it was so close, but Williams got my fourth spot. He shouldered the load on the fourth-best team in the league without a ton of talent or experience around him. Of this group, he had the highest number of unassisted field goals and is by far the best passer. He’s probably the worst defender of the four, but he’s not egregious and did rebound the ball well. I don’t think you could have put any of the other three bigs in Williams’ spot and yielded the same results for Purdue.

After Indiana sank to ninth in the conference standings, I had to eliminate Jackson-Davis. In a vacuum, I think he’s the fourth-best player in the league. He scored 21 points or more in seven of the Hoosiers’ losses. The epitome of his season was scoring 34 points in a must-win game at Michigan State, but Indiana’s starting backcourt was 0-10, and they ultimately lost. He’s awesome, but with other deserving candidates, I couldn’t give it to him.

It came down to Liddell and Cockburn, and what swayed me was Liddell outplaying him in both head-to-head matchups. Cockburn’s raw numbers were better, but he was in a perfect environment to succeed. 72% of his makes at the rim were assisted. He registered just two assists in conference play, and his lack of free-throw shooting hurt Illinois at times.

Liddell had to be Ohio State’s top dog, on a team that was ranked for most of the season, while guarding both fours and fives. His BPM was better, and his ability to shoot helped stretch the floor. They are different players, but Liddell was more complete, and I wanted to reward him for being the guy. Only twice since 2011 have two players from the same team made First Team All-BIg Ten, and when Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo did it in 2013, Indiana won the league outright. Again, I think Cockburn is a worthy selection, but it’s just a preference thing for me.

All-Big Ten Second Team: 

Aaron Henry (Michigan State)

Joe Wieskamp (Iowa)

Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana)

Kofi Cockburn (Illinois)

Hunter Dickinson (Michigan)

The second team was fairly easy, as I started with the leftovers from the first team — Cockburn and Jackson-Davis — then went from there. Dickinson was the third lock, as he was the leading scorer and rim protector of the league’s best team, adding huge moments when needed.

Joe Wieskamp was a relatively easy fourth choice. He put in an insane shooting season, making 48.9% of his threes on five attempts per game. Wieskamp is the ultimate “oh shoot, he’s open” guy.

I initially had Marcus Carr penciled into my fifth spot, but a deep dive into his numbers vs. Aaron Henry and it’s hard to argue against Henry. He was one of the league’s best defenders, with over one steal and one block per game while scoring 16.5 points per game and dishing out three assists per game. Michigan State also finished four spots higher than Minnesota, which crumbled to 13th in the league.

All-Big Ten Third Team:

Marcus Carr (Minnesota)

Duane Washington Jr. (Ohio State)

D’Mitrik Trice (Wisconsin)

Aaron Wiggins (Maryland)

Isaiah Livers (Michigan)

I started with Carr here, because despite Minnesota’s late-season struggles, he did will them to most of their wins while being the Big Ten’s fifth leading scorer. From there, I took a look at the following guys for the last four spots: Washington Jr., Trice, Livers, Wiggins, Ron Harper Jr., Micah Potter, Eric Ayala and Trent Frazier.

Trice got my first spot of the four. Despite Wisconsin underachieving, he was still rock solid, scoring 14.5 points per game on solid shooting splits and was his team’s only creator. The Badgers fell short of their goals but still finished sixth in the league and are a lock for the NCAA tournament.

Washington was the leading scorer of that group, and though he was inefficient, he played on a top-15 team and managed the point guard spot when guys went down.

Livers was the lowest scorer of that group, but he was the most efficient and the best rebounder. His +10.5 BPM was marginally better than everyone else’s, and he was a key part of the league’s best team.

The last spot boiled down to Wiggins and Harper Jr. The Rutgers wing was on a tear to start the season, but he went ice cold in conference play, averaging just under 14 points per game and shooting less than 30% from deep. Wiggins got hot towards the end of the year and finished at 14.6 points per game on 34.6% from deep. He was also a more complete player, grabbing over six rebounds and dishing out over two assists per game.

Big Ten Freshman of the Year:

Hunter Dickinson (Michigan)

Big Ten All-Freshman Team:

Andre Curbelo (Illinois)

Brandon Newman (Purdue)

Jaden Ivey (Purdue)

Keegan Murray (Iowa)

Hunter Dickinson (Michigan)

Dickinson, Newman and Ivey were the initial locks. The Purdue guards played a huge role in keeping Purdue afloat with Sasha Stefanovic out.

I considered four guys for the last two spots: Murray, Curbelo, Zach Edey, Adam Miller and Zed Key, but one quick dive and it became increasingly obvious that Murray was the next player. He’s 0.5 points ahead of Miller and 0.4 points shy of Curbelo on better shooting splits, all while being the best freshman defender. His 6.9 block rate is wild, all while posting an impressive 8.2 BPM, blowing away all other freshmen.

Curbelo then became the obvious fifth guy. Miller had spurts, and they both had slumps, but Curbelo’s ability to create won Illinois more games. He actually scored more, too, on a better field goal percentage and rebounded the ball better than his classmate.

Edey had a really good freshman season as well, but Curbelo and Murray felt like more impactful players.

Big Ten All-Defensive Team:

Darryl Morsell (Maryland)

Aaron Henry (Michigan State)

Franz Wagner (Michigan)

Race Thompson (Indiana)

Myles Johnson (Rutgers)

Wagner and Myles Johnson were the locks. Johnson also had an awesome defensive season, finishing second in defensive BPM with a +4.8. He and Wagner are just two of seven Big Ten players since 2011 to have a steal rate over 2.6 and block rate over 3.3.

Darryl Morsell became the third guy for me. The 6-foot-5 Baltimore native guarded multiple positions with his size. He shut down Marcus Carr twice and even held Ayo Dosunmu to one of his worst outings of the season.

Aaron Henry joined him in the backcourt. Again, he was a key part in making Dosunmu have an off-night. At 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, he’s another guy built to guard multiple positions, and he averaged 2.6 stocks (steals + blocks).

The last spot was extremely difficult, and I could have gone a bunch of ways. I considered Thompson, Tyler Wahl, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Keegan Murray. I ultimately went with Thompson, who provided rim protection, hustle and effort all season long.

Trent Frazier is the obvious Illinois omission, and while I think he is an awesome on-ball defender, Henry and Morsell just have more size, making them more switchable. Frazier guards players around his size extremely well, but he can’t switch off the way Henry, Morsell and Wagner can. He is a totally appropriate pick and a great defender, but I just think those two are better defenders in a vacuum.

I’ll give a special shout-out Da’Monte Williams, who doesn’t get enough love. His ability to guard multiple positions and guard players way above his height was key for Illinois.

I wanted to put Keegan Murray on here so badly because he is an awesome defender, but Iowa’s defense was abysmal and McCaffery didn’t play him enough.

@BrandonSimberg

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Jackson Janes (Assistant sports editor)

We made it. The crazy, unpredictable and unprecedented 2020-2021 Big Ten regular season is over, and the Illini currently sit third in the nation and have earned the 2-seed — and a double-bye — in the Big Ten tournament.

The end of the season means it’s time to distribute conference awards, and I’ve made my picks for the All-Big Ten teams, along with the Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Freshman of the year, Defensive Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year. Let’s go through all of my predictions and preferences for each award category.

Big Ten Player of the Year:

Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois)

Last, but certainly not least, I opted to go with Ayo over Luka for the Big Ten Player of the Year award. After an incredible sophomore season, Dosunmu somehow got even better in 2021, as he averaged 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in conference play across 17 games this season. Yes, I know Ayo sat out three games due to a facial injury, but I still think he did enough to prove he is the best player in the league. He is also the first player in the NCAA to average at least 20 points, six rebounds and five assists per game since Ohio State’s Evan Turner accomplished the feat during the 2009-2010 season.

I can see this award going either way, as both players definitely deserve to win the award, but I think Ayo’s two triple-doubles and overall historic season give him the edge this year.

Coach of the Year:

Juwan Howard (Michigan)

This was a no-brainer. Michigan entered the season as a pretty average squad, and few people could have expected it to win the Big Ten or climb as high as No. 2 in the country in the AP poll. Plus, the Wolverines dealt with a lengthy COVID-19 pause in the middle of the season. Despite everything thrown their way, the Wolverines won the Big Ten and still boast the top recruiting class in 2021. Props to Howard for guiding Michigan through such a successful regular season, despite what many Illinois fans might think.

Defensive Player of the Year:

Myles Johnson (Rutgers)

This was probably the toughest decision for me, as I debated between Johnson and Franz Wagner (Michigan), but I ultimately went with the former. Johnson averaged 2.5 blocks — the second-most in the conference and the 18th-most in the country — and 1.1 steals per game. He was a wall on defense, but I think Wagner would also be very deserving of the award.

Sixth Man of the Year:

Andre Curbelo (Illinois)

After dealing with inconsistency during the beginning of the season, Curbelo really stepped up for the Illini over the last few weeks, especially in Dosunmu’s absence, as he averaged nearly 15 points per game during that span. The Puerto Rico native stepped up for Brad Underwood’s squad countless times when the offense struggled to get going, as he provided a spark off the bench with his creativity and slick passing. Though he never started a game this season, Curbelo saw lots of minutes — averaging nearly 20 per game — and brought the intensity and energy on both ends of the floor.

All-Big Ten First Team:

Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois) 

Luka Garza (Iowa)

Franz Wagner (Michigan)

E.J. Liddell (Ohio State)

Kofi Cockburn (Illinois)

Ayo had one of the most dominant and historic seasons in college basketball history, and Luka is Luka, so those were both locks for me. Franz Wagner put together one of the most complete seasons of any player in the Big Ten, as his defensive dominance and consistent contributions on offense made him a no-brainer pick for me.

E.J. Liddell was one of the biggest reasons why Ohio State exceeded all expectations this season. He led the Buckeyes with 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, and it comes as no surprise that Brad Underwood and the Illini were so eager to bring him to Champaign during the recruitment process. After missing out on the All-Freshman Team last season, Liddell brought a whole different level to this Buckeye team this season, helping them finish in the top-10 in the final Associated Press poll of the regular season.

The last spot was a bit tougher for me, as I struggled to decide between Kofi and Purdue’s Trevion Williams for this last spot. Both players made the Big Ten honorable mention list last year, and the two big men both made huge progress this season.

I think Cockburn just slightly edges Williams this season, as the Illini big man had 12 double-doubles in conference play, while Williams had seven. Kofi also has been an absolute monster in the paint all year, and his defense as of late has significantly improved. Though you could make the same argument with Williams, Cockburn’s offensive presence — he shot 66.4% from the field, the highest percentage in the Big Ten — has been unstoppable this season, and the Illini likely wouldn’t have fared as well in conference play without him. 

All-Big Ten Second Team:

Trevion Williams (Purdue)

Trayce Jackson-Davis (Indiana)

Hunter Dickinson (Michigan)

Aaron Henry (Michigan State)

Marcus Carr (Minnesota)

Williams was a gimme in the second team after barely missing out on a first team spot to Cockburn, while Jackson-Davis likely would’ve earned a spot in the first team if his team, Indiana, had done a little bit better in Big Ten play.

Dickinson also deserves to be recognized for his immediate dominance in conference play, as he was the leading scorer on the Big Ten’s regular-season champions — as stated by the conference; I’m just reporting the facts — with 14.1 points per game. He also averaged 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks; he was an easy inclusion in the second team.

The final two spots were a bit trickier, but I ended up settling for Aaron Henry and Marcus Carr. Henry was the best player on the underachieving Spartans, as he was the team’s leading scorer with 16.5 points per game in conference play, while he averaged nearly 19 points in his team’s three top-5 wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan in the final two weeks of the regular season. Without these wins, the Spartans would likely be on the wrong side of the bubble for the NCAA tournament.

Carr has also been the standout performer for Minnesota. The redshirt junior finished fifth in points and assists in the Big Ten, averaging 17.7 points and 4.4 assists across 20 conference games. Carr has been a commanding force on an otherwise lackluster squad in Minneapolis, despite the fact that the Golden Gophers have lost seven straight and have fallen all the way down to the 13-seed in the Big Ten tournament.

All-Big Ten Third Team:

Joe Wieskamp (Iowa)

D’Mitrik Trice (Wisconsin)

Aaron Wiggins (Maryland)

Ron Harper Jr. (Rutgers)

Trent Frazier (Illinois)

Wieskamp barely missed out on my second team, though he certainly deserves to be recognized for his standout season. He was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team last year, too, but I think that’s a fair assessment for his performances during this crazy season.

My last few spots were a bit trickier. Though Wisconsin didn’t live up to its preseason hype, Trice had an impressive season, as he averaged 14.5 points per game in conference play and held together an otherwise boring Wisconsin offense. Plus, that late-game burst against the Illini was quite something, and the Badgers would’ve fared far worse in Big Ten play without him.

The last three spots were a bit more of a toss-up for me, but I ultimately opted to go with Harper Jr., Wiggins and Frazier. Harper Jr. led the Scarlet Knights in scoring with 13.8 points per game, while he also grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game. Wiggins was also his team’s leading scorer, as he averaged 14.6 points per game for the Terrapins. He also grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game, while he shot 43.4% from the field.

Rejoice, Illini fans. I opted to go with Frazier for the last spot in my third team, as he is one of the best defenders and most reliable shooters in all of the Big Ten. Frazier stepped up in Dosunmu’s absence, especially after going for 22 in the team’s shocking 23-point win over the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. His all-around success made this a tough but fair choice for the final spot in my All-Big ten third team.

Freshman of the Year:

Hunter Dickinson (Michigan)

This was another easy decision for me. Dickinson led the Wolverines in scoring, blocks and rebounds and was one of the best players on the best team in the conference. Other contenders included Purdue duo Jaden Ivey and Brandon Newman and Illinois’ Andre Curbelo, but I think Dickinson was far and away the best freshman in the Big Ten this year. 

@JacksonJanes3

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