The best players play their best games when the lights shine brightest. The lights don’t get much brighter than playing a road game against your in-state rival on CBS for a spot at the top of the Big Ten. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance than the 27 points and 8 assists that Cassius Winston poured in on Sunday.
For awhile now, the Big Ten Player of the Year race has come down to three players—Winston, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.
The case for Happ is that he’s the most indispensable player on any team in the league. No disrespect to the rest of the Badgers’ roster, but Happ leads the Badgers in assists, rebounds, and points, and he gets nearly as many steals as the crafty Davison. He has the best footwork of any big man in America and he plays with a businesslike demeanor that makes you think dropping a double-double is as easy as tying his shoes.
But the problem for Happ is that Wisconsin isn’t a contender in the Big Ten title race. Sitting at five losses, the Badgers have the four seed in the Big Ten Tournament locked down unless Michigan really underperforms or Iowa really overperforms. A top four finish is up to the Bo Ryan minimum standard, but it’s not enough to make Happ look like a reincarnation of Frank Kaminsky.
Purdue, on the other hand, has a chance to win the league, possibly outright. Carsen Edwards is the Boilermakers’ star, and he hoists a greater percentage of Purdue’s shots than Happ does for Wisconsin. He has as many holy-shit-how-did-that-go-in moments as anyone in the league not named Jordan Bohannon. He is at the top of every Purdue scouting report, and he is second in scoring among power conference players, trailing only Marquette’s Markus Howard.
But Edwards is in the middle of the biggest slump of his career. He’s only hit one three in Purdue’s last two games, after averaging closer to four earlier this season. I expect Carsen to break out of his slump in a big way when Purdue returns home to Mackey Arena, and it’s entirely likely he ends up scoring more than Winston on a team that finishes higher in the Big Ten than Winston.
Carsen Edwards has not had a transcendently good game in a win against a great opponent.
Edwards’ best games this season are a 40-point performance in a loss to Texas, home wins against Nebraska and Rutgers, and a hold-on-by-your-fingernails win on the road in State College. Against Michigan and Michigan State, he posted offensive ratings of 82, 59, and 86. There is no signature performance for Edwards to hang his hat on. Certainly nothing like what Winston just did to Michigan.
What’s more, Winston is going to get another chance to show off on the conference’s biggest stage. The rematch with Michigan on March 9 still looms. Carsen Edwards gets games against Illinois, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Northwestern. None of those games will command a large audience. When the voting takes place, Cassius Winston is going to be the player whose most recent performance is on the voters’ minds.
-Carrying The Load
At this point, we haven’t even mentioned the most impressive thing that Winston has been able to do—he’s had to pick up the scoring and leadership load from not just one but two All-Big-Ten-caliber teammates. Josh Langford hasn’t played since December. Nick Ward is out with a busted hand until mid-March. Michigan is completely healthy. And Cassius Winston just beat them in their own gym.
Winston is top-ten in the Big Ten in the following categories: minutes played (7th), possessions used (4th), true shooting percentage (8th), (lack of) fouls called per 40 (10th), fouls drawn per 40 (4th), free throw rate (7th), free throw percentage (6th), and 3-point percentage (8th). Oh and he leads the conference and is fourth in the country in assist rate. In other words, he’s a point guard who is an elite passer, an elite shooter, who can rack up fouls on the other team, while staying on the court almost the entire game.
The award for Big Ten Coach of the Year is probably going to come down to which team wins the league. Player of the Year won’t. It’s Winston, and it’s not even close.