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Checking in on the Big Ten Player of the Year Race

Here’s why EJ Liddell of Ohio State is my pick to win B1G POY

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 14 Big Ten Tournament - Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been an exciting and confounding season to follow the Player of the Year race in the Big Ten. The past three seasons have produced pretty clear winners in Cassius Winston (2019) and Luka Garza (2020 & 2021). This year, no such frontrunner has emerged. This isn’t due to a lack of high-level play, but rather a surplus of it.

In fact, the Big Ten has so many great players that it leads the country in number of players in the top 10 of KenPom’s player of the year metric with four (the SEC and WCC have two each). While the National Player of the Year trophy is probably Oscar Tshiebwe’s to lose, you could make a pretty compelling case for any of the top players in the Big Ten.

When we look at the Big Ten specifically, I think the race for POY comes down to three players—EJ Liddell of Ohio State, Kofi Cockburn of Illinois, and Johnny Davis of Wisconsin. Really, it’s a shame that only one of them can win it; they’ve all had outstanding seasons and would be more than deserving of POY honors. Liddell has been one of the most efficient players in the entire country, Cockburn has been a certified post machine, and Davis truly does it all for Wisconsin.

So let’s break it down. Which of these players—at this point in the season—have been the most impressive and valuable to their team?

Let’s take a look at my All-Big Ten picks right now:

-First Team

  • EJ Liddell, Ohio State
  • Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
  • Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
  • Keegan Murray, Iowa
  • Jaden Ivey, Purdue

-Second Team

  • Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
  • Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana
  • Zach Edey, Purdue
  • Trevion Williams, Purdue
  • Trent Frazier, Illinois

-Honorable Mentions

Alfonso Plummer, Brad Davison, Tyler Wahl, Ron Harper Jr, Malaki Branham, Race Thompson, AJ Hoggard, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham, Jamison Battle, Pete Nance, Boo Buie, Eric Ayala

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I’ll start with my pick for Big Ten POY: EJ Liddell (Ohio State). This might be somewhat of a hot take, seeing as Cockburn and Davis are largely thought to be the frontrunners. But Liddell has been a remarkably consistent, smart, efficient, and steadying presence for the Buckeyes all year. Beyond his impressive scoring ability, I continue to be in awe of his court vision and passing ability.

The advanced numbers are all the more impressive and back up my claims of efficiency. Liddell ranks the highest of Big Ten players in KenPom’s POY metric at No. 2 nationally, in addition to being top five in the Big Ten for offensive rating, percentage of possessions used, and block percentage.

Johnny Davis has been a revelation for the Badgers, and in large part the reason that they have had such a great season. Although his scoring cooled off after he briefly led the country, he still averages 20.3 PPG and leads Wisconsin in rebounds (8.2 RPG), assists (2.4 APG), and steals (1.3 SPG). Davis is a swiss army knife and makes his teammates better—Tyler Wahl and Brad Davison are having career years. And in a year where Wisconsin was thought to be a middling Big Ten team in the preseason, Davis has led the Badgers to a 10-4 conference record and a shot at winning their second regular season crown in three years.

And, of course, no Big Ten POY discussion would be complete without mentioning Kofi Cockburn of Illinois. A wrecking ball for the Illini in the post, Cockburn has put up monster numbers, averaging 21.5 PPG on 60.7% shooting, and 11.4 RPG. He’s had some truly remarkable performances this year; you may remember him putting up 37 points and 12 rebounds against Wisconsin a couple weeks ago.

My only qualm with Kofi is that Illinois can be over-reliant on the big man, so when opponents have the size to match up with him, he can be less effective and lead his team to a loss. We saw this against Purdue and Arizona, and it seems inevitable that someone in the NCAA Tournament will take advantage of this. Still, I’m nitpicking here; Kofi has been a machine and one of my favorite players to watch this year.

Rounding out my Big Ten first team is Keegan Murray of Iowa and Jaden Ivey of Purdue. Murray has been an extremely efficient scorer for the Hawkeyes, ranking No. 1 in the conference in Offensive Rating and No. 3 in effective field goal percentage. Thanks in part to Murray, Iowa has been able to fill the offensive void left by Luka Garza. While they haven’t been in the elite of the Big Ten, Iowa is still above .500 at the moment, and that’s better than most thought they would be this year.

Jaden Ivey has also shown flashes of his potential and skill last year as a freshman and was rightfully one of the most hyped players in the conference this offseason. To say he’s lived up to the billing would be an understatement; Ivey has vastly improved, become more polished, stronger, and seemingly even more athletic. Ivey is certainly NBA-bound, and his production is hard to miss. He’s truly been a human highlight reel and a large reason that Purdue is poised to win the conference and secure a top-two seed in the tournament.

I was going back and forth between Dickinson and Ivey for first team; I ended up going with Ivey because I think Purdue deserves to have at least one player in the top five. Hunter Dickinson—the preseason favorite to win Big Ten POY—has slightly underperformed expectations, but he’s still been excellent. He’s averaging 18.1 PPG on 56.7% from the floor, 8.2 RPG, and 1.2 BPG. While it’s been a disappointing season for Michigan, they have been surging recently and, despite the recent loss to Ohio State, they are not a team that I would want to face in March.

Rounding out the second team, Trayce Jackson-Davis is a large part of Indiana’s relative success in year one of the Mike Woodson era. Zach Edey and Trevion Williams combine to make the most efficient and productive center in the country; if they were one player they would be a runaway pick for national POY. Trent Frazier is putting on an outstanding senior year for Illinois and helping to fill the Ayo-sized gap in their roster.

There are tons of other deserving players for the third team, which I’ve listed under honorable mentions. The last month of the conference season will play a huge role in determining which player wins Big Ten POY. If Illinois closes out strong and wins the conference, it probably goes to Kofi. But Ohio State has a great shot at a strong finish in the conference, and EJ Liddell’s numbers speak for themselves. If the Buckeyes surge late, Liddell definitely has a shot at taking home the trophy.