Sunday afternoon in Columbus, the two top players in the Big Ten will be on the floor when Ohio State hosts Wisconsin. Badger senior Frank Kaminsky and Buckeye freshman D'Angelo Russell have been head and shoulders above everyone else in the conference throughout the season, and are the only real candidates to be named Big Ten Player of the Year.
Kaminsky appears to be a virtual lock to take home the hardware. He's the best player on the best team, and his consistent performance has Wisconsin, which has already wrapped up the Big Ten's regular season title, in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Despite the Badger big man's spectacular final year in Madison, though, there is an argument to be made that Russell has been the most outstanding player in the conference. While it seems unlikely that anyone other than Kaminsky will win the award, let's break down the Buckeye newcomer's case.
Putting Russell and Kaminsky's statistics for the season head-to-head shows a pretty even race. Both players either lead their team or nearly do in just about every meaningful stat, and its clear that any success Wisconsin and Ohio State have had on the court this year is thanks to their two stars.
Overall, the numbers for Kaminsky and Russell look like this:
During conference play, both players have seen upticks in scoring and rebounding. Kaminsky has actually shot the ball better during the Big Ten schedule than his overall numbers, while Russell has seen a very slight dip:
Based purely on the numbers, the Player of the Year race is a complete toss-up. Both Kaminsky and Russell have extremely solid all-around games, and a statistical argument could be made for either player.
At 27-3 on the season, it's easy to look at Wisconsin and say Kaminsky obviously has a stronger supporting cast than Russell. Along with Frank the Tank, the Badgers have at least two other starters who should find their way to the NBA at some point in Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes. Dekker has averaged 13.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on the season, while Hayes has contributed 12.1 and 6.4.
Russell doesn't have nearly that sort of production around him. While both he and Kaminsky have accounted for about a quarter of their respective teams' scoring this season, the Buckeye freshman has also shouldered a large chunk of the offensive creation for Ohio State, sharing point guard duties with senior Shannon Scott and initiating the offense.
One thing that cannot be overlooked in Kaminsky's favor, though, is the injury to senior point guard Traevon Jackson. For the past fourteen games, sophomore Bronson Koenig has been running the point for the Badgers, and Kaminsky has seen to it that the team has not missed a beat, averaging over 20 points a night in that span. A lone loss to Maryland is the only blemish on the Badgers' resume without Jackson.
This is the one obvious place that Russell's argument for Player of the Year trumps Kaminsky. While the recruiting profiles for each were wildly disparate, Russell's performance as a freshman is special. A 5-star recruit out of Montverde Academy in Florida, Russell was ranked No. 16 in his class by 247Sports. Kaminsky, meanwhile, was a 3-star player when he came out of Benet Academy in Lisle, Illinois, and was outside the top 200 in his class.
Here is how Russell's freshman year stacks up to what Kaminsky did as a newcomer back in the 2011-12 season for the Badgers:
Of course, the argument can be made that Kaminsky joined a more talented team at Wisconsin as a freshman than Russell did when he arrived at Ohio State. The Badgers went 26-10 and made the Sweet 16 during Kaminsky's first year in Madison. At 22-8, the Buckeyes need to find a hot streak in the Big Ten tourney and March Madness to compete with that record.
Kaminsky is utterly deserving of taking home the Big Ten Player of the Year. I'm certainly not arguing that he isn't. Wisconsin would not be in the position it is if not for Frank the Tank. The Badgers have a chance to put together one of the best seasons by a Big Ten team in quite some time if they can continue to be successful in the postseason, and Kaminsky will no doubt be the primary reason.
Still, what Russell has done in perhaps his only college season has been impressive. That he is even in the conversation for Player of the Year is something few would have foreseen before the season started. If Ohio State is to have any chance of making noise in the Big Ten tourney or making it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, its star freshman is going to have to continue to play at that level.
Both players are locks to be named All-Big Ten at season's end, and are likely to be named first-team All-Americans as well. When their teams step on the court Sunday afternoon, it will be a treat for college basketball fans everywhere.