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Each season I am asked to fill out an All-Big Ten ballot for my employer and I always accept the challenge, especially in a season like this one.
While the Big Ten is loaded with talent, filling out my ballot this year was fairly straightforward. Indiana’s
Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller and Michigan’s Trey Burke are locks and should be on everybody’s ballot. The same could be said about Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, as his 19.7 points per game are the reason the Buckeyes were so competitive this season.
The final spot for me went to Michigan State’s Keith Appling, who was outstanding this year for a Spartans team not expected to threaten for the league title. He also crushed the Badgers in two games played.
Individual awards were easy picks, too. Burke was my player of the year, Michigan State’s Gary Harris was my freshman year and my coach of the year, without hesitation, is Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan.
What Ryan has done this season for Wisconsin – entering the Big Ten Tournament ranked No.22 in the Associated Press poll - is nothing short of a miracle, especially when you look at the personnel Wisconsin has on this team compared to the other top five teams in the conference and it doesn’t compare.
For starters, Wisconsin doesn’t have the same dynamic scorer on its roster that it’s had in past seasons. UW has no player averaging over 11.6 points per game, none in the top 20 of scoring in the league and is unlikely to have any player on the conference’s first team since the 2009-10 season.
On my second team was Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan State’s Harris and Adreian Payne and Illinois’ Brandon Paul, who narrowly beat out Minnesota’s Trevor Mbawke for me. For UW to be in the race despite not having any player on the projected first or second team is outstanding.
Wisconsin went through a plethora of injuries to key personnel, as Josh Gasser (torn ACL), Mike Bruesewitz (concussion) and Frank Kaminsky (eye) all missed multiple games. He’s had to deal with team and player shooting woes throughout the season, as UW scored less than 40 points four times and Ryan Evans’ free throw shooting has been a consistent headache.
Ryan’s had to make players play out of position, as well, with sophomore Traevon Jackson playing point guard when he’s a natural two guard; a role that originally went to redshirt freshman George Marshall at the start of the season.
And yet, the stats haven’t changed that much. Wisconsin is ninth in the country in defense at 55.9 per game (the next Big Ten team is Ohio State ranked 22nd at 58.8 per game), and UW is third in the country in turnovers per game (9.5).
Because of that, Wisconsin still went 5-4 on the road in the conference, had five wins against conference teams ranked in the top 15, won at least 10 conference games for the 11th time in his 12 years and finished in the top four of the conference for the 12th straight season.
That’s a credit to Ryan, who also had his team play a tough nonconference schedule that came with three road losses to teams (Creighton, Florida and Marquette) which won their league title.
Many have Indiana coach Tom Crean as a large contender for this award after having reversed the fortunes of his program in his fifth season. But Indiana was supposed to be an elite power this year, which was evident by its number one preseason ranking, and two national player of the year candidates. It’s easy to win with that kind of talent and without any major personnel issues.
I get the argument that it takes a coach to maintain that high level of expectations, but Crean’s actions (lack of post game handshakes after losses, berating Big Ten officials over league awards, screaming at a Michigan assistant after winning the outright championship, etc.) rub me the wrong way and don’t deserve to be rewarded.
Plus Wisconsin won at Indiana, so Ryan wins my tiebreaker. And just because Wisconsin didn’t win the Big Ten doesn’t mean Ryan can’t win the award.
In 2011, Purdue's Matt Painter won the honor despite finishing two games behind first-place Ohio State. In 2009, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis shared the award with Michigan State's Tom Izzo after the Nittany Lions tied for fourth and didn't even make the NCAA Tournament.
And when Painter won Coach of the Year in 2008, Purdue finished second in the Big Ten to Wisconsin, but the Boilermakers beat the Badgers twice.
Ryan has earned the conference’s coaching honor twice — in his first year with the Badgers in 2002 and again in 2003. His 19-win campaign in his first season with Wisconsin was certainly impressive, especially since it ended with a championship that had walk-ons from the track team on it, but the Big Ten only sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, none of them higher than a 4-seed.
If projections hold true for this year tournament by bracket experts, seven Big Ten squads will take part in March Madness this year (possibly eight if Iowa makes a conference tournament run) and four of them will be a top three seed (UW is projected between four and six).
The strength of basketball in the conference was stunning, but not as stunning as Ryan’s coaching job.