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The Best Players in the Big Ten: Christmas Advanced Statistics Check-In

Which players are putting up the best numbers

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas is here, and from a basketball perspective, that means that the non-conference portion of the season is effectively over. There are no good games left before conference play resumes.

That means it’s time to get more familiar with the players we’ll be watching night-in and night-out for the next two months.

By now, you probably know who the best player on your own team is, but do you really know the best player on each of the other thirteen teams? Do you know how they stack up against each other? Who plays the most, who shoots the most, who fouls the most?

As with most things in life, KenPom can help.

KenPom tracks eighteen individual statistical categories. Below we’ll run down the five best players in some of those categories, provide commentary, and see if we can figure out who the best player in the league is.

Percentage of Minutes Played

  1. Anthony Cowan (Maryland)
  2. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (Michigan)
  3. Bryant Macintosh (Northwestern)
  4. Robert Johnson (Indiana)
  5. Geo Baker (Rutgers)

Cowan and Macintosh are no surprise, as they are the best players on their respective teams. The other three are more surprising. Abdur-Rahkman commits very few fouls, which lets him stay in the game for longer. Johnson provides senior leadership for an Indiana squad that’s trying to gel. Baker is the most puzzling, as he is a freshman and doesn’t lead the Scarlet Knights in any statistical category besides this one.

Offensive Rating

  1. PJ Thompson (Purdue)
  2. Aaron Jordan (Illinois)
  3. Dakota Mathias (Purdue)
  4. Josh Reaves (Penn State)
  5. Cassius Winston (Michigan State)

Of the guys here, only Mathias leads his team in minutes played. It’s harder to be efficient when you’re playing major minutes. He didn’t appear on the first list, but that’s because Purdue has had enough blowout wins that Matt Painter has been able to rest his starters and get his bench some needed experience. Of the guys on the first list, Cowan has the best offensive rating, checking in at No. 22 on this list.

Based on these two categories, Cowan and Mathias are your leading contenders for best in the league. It seems like we’re missing a lot of guys still, though. Let’s keep going.

Percentage of Shots Taken

  1. Miles Bridges (Michigan State)
  2. Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
  3. Carsen Edwards (Purdue)
  4. Tony Carr (Penn State)
  5. Nick Ward (Michigan State)

That’s more like it. Bridges, Happ, and Carr are easily the most important players on their team. Edwards is the most dynamic, and Nick Ward would be the most important guy on his team were he not playing with the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.

It’s interesting that none of these guys are anywhere near the top of the list of minutes played, and only Nick Ward is in the top ten of the offensive rating list. Let’s add Ward to our list of Cowan and Mathias.

Assist Rate

  1. Cassius Winston (Michigan State)
  2. Bryant Macintosh (Northwestern)
  3. Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
  4. Dakota Mathias (Purdue)
  5. Lourawls Nairn (Michigan State)

Winston, Macintosh, Happ, and Mathias all appear again. Let’s add the first three to our list. Nairn makes the fourth Michigan State player to appear. Is it any wonder the Spartans are really good this year?

It seems to me this list has been pretty skewed towards guards so far. Good guard play is the key to advancing in the NCAA tournament, but let’s take a look at some categories that favor big men.

Defensive Rebounding Rate

  1. Mike Watkins (Penn State)
  2. Mo Wagner (Michigan)
  3. Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
  4. Keita Bates-Diop (Ohio State)
  5. Kipper Nichols (Illinois)

There’s Happ again. Coming into the year, I don’t think it would have surprised anyone if Happ had a Frank Kaminsky-like year and led the Badgers in every major statistical category. If the Badgers were winning, Happ would be a shoo-in for best player. As it is, they’re the only team in the league with a losing record, albeit against a tough schedule.

And before the year began, who would have thought that 6’6” sophomore Kipper Nichols would be among the Big Ten’s leaders in any category? Well done, young man.

Offensive Rebounding Rate

  1. Nick Ward (Michigan State)
  2. Jordan Murphy (Minnesota)
  3. Luka Garza (Iowa)
  4. Juwan Morgan (Indiana)
  5. Kaleb Wesson (Ohio State)

Oh, hi Nick ward. And there’s Jordan Murphy, who prior to Minnesota’s disastrous three game stretch against Nebraska, Arkansas, and Drake was appearing in the KenPom Player of the Year rankings. (No Big Ten players appear on the current kPOY list. The leader is unsurprisingly Oklahoma’s Trae Young.)

Block Percentage

  1. Matt Haarms (Purdue)
  2. Reggie Lynch (Minnesota)
  3. Jaren Jackson (Michigan State)
  4. Mike Watkins (Penn State)
  5. Bruno Fernando (Maryland)

Still more Boilermakers and Spartans appearing among the conference leaders. No surprise those two are far and away the best teams in the league.

Bruno Fernando is only a freshman, but there is the potential there to become the scariest player in the league. He already has a great name, and he’s developing a great game.

Fouls Drawn per 40 Minutes

  1. Nick Ward (Michigan State)
  2. Isaac Haas (Purdue)
  3. Kaleb Wesson (Ohio State)
  4. Luka Garza (Iowa)
  5. Tyler Cook (Iowa)

At this point is anyone surprised who’s at the top of this list?

Kaleb Wesson appears for the second time. He’s another freshman we’ll need to keep an eye on.

The Best Player in the League

The best player in the league based on games played through Christmas is Nick Ward.

First Team All Big Ten

Anthony Cowan, Dakota Mathias, Ethan Happ, Bryant Macintosh, and Cassius Winston were also on our list. I think you have to throw Miles Bridges and Jordan Murphy into the mix, too. Including Ward, that’s eight guys. We need to cut three.

There are some aspects of individual gameplay that don’t lend themselves well to statistics. Defensive performance is one. Only steals are easily measurable, but it’s possible to shut down an opponent without stealing the ball. Dakota Mathias is the best defender in the league according to Dan Dakich. I know Dakich can be controversial at times, but on this issue he’s dead on. Mathias makes the final cut.

I think we can only include one player from a team that’s unlikely to make the NCAA tournament. That means one of Happ and Macintosh have to go. Of the two, I’d take Happ. He affects the game in more ways, and Wisconsin fans aren’t as frustrated with him as Northwestern fans are with Macintosh.

We can’t have three Spartans, so either Winston or Bridges have to go, too. As good as Winston has been, Bridges was the preseason player of the year for good reason. His ceiling might be the highest in the conference.

And so for the last spot on the first team it comes down to Anthony Cowan or Jordan Murphy. We already have a lot of frontcourt players, and we need a point guard. Cowan it is.

  1. Nick Ward (Michigan State)
  2. Dakota Mathias (Purdue)
  3. Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
  4. Miles Bridges (Michigan State)
  5. Anthony Cowan (Maryland)

One Final Thing

Every team in the league had a player appear on at least one list. Every team except Nebraska. We are an all-inclusive site here at BT Powerhouse, so let’s see if we can find a category where our Husker brethren have someone they can be proud of.

Lowest Turnover Percentage

  1. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (Michigan)
  2. Brevin Pritzl (Wisconsin)
  3. Scottie Lindsay (Northwestern)
  4. Nate Mason (Minnesota)
  5. Anton Gill (Nebraska)

Congrats to Anton Gill and to all the players appearing in the top five of these major categories. Here’s to a successful 2018 conference season.