As the 2016-17 basketball season approaches, Land of 10 spoke to players at Big Ten media day on Oct. 13 and asked for their thoughts on the forthcoming campaign. The players were granted anonymity and had only one rule: they could not vote for their team nor anyone on it.
One of the talking points for the coaches of the Big Ten at the conference’s media day last week in Washington, D.C., was the annual experience level in the league.
While college basketball at most top-level conferences has trended younger in recent years, with more players leaving early for the NBA draft. Big Ten coaches last week talked about how more players stay longer in the conference. And one place where the league’s experience can best be seen is its player of the year award, where a youth movement has yet to take place.
An award that began in 1984-85, the Big Ten has never had a freshman win player of the year. How unlikely is that? Long thought impossible, a freshman has won the Heisman Trophy twice. Same for the Wooden Award. A freshman has been the No. 1 player on basketball national champion on several occasions.
As for the Big Ten player of the year? Zero freshmen. Only nine sophomores. More than half of all winners (19) have been seniors. Four of the past six winners have been seniors. Contrast that with the SEC, where five of the past seven POYs have been underclassmen. Three of the past four ACC POYs have been underclassmen, as well.
And there are plenty of great veteran players back for another season in the Big Ten for 2016-17, including six players who returned to school after declaring for the NBA draft and going through the evaluation process in the offseason. But there is also a consistent league powerhouse that is going to lean on freshmen a lot this season, and that makes this discussion more interesting than usual.
Michigan State has the three highest-ranked Big Ten recruits in the Class of 2016. Could Miles Bridges, Josh Langford or Cassius Winston become the Spartans’ best player in a surprise conference-championship run? What about elite recruits at schools looking to make a big move up the standings like Tony Carr at Penn State or Amir Coffey at Minnesota?
But when Land of 10 polled various players at Big Ten media day, they stuck with tradition. Three players became clear favorites among their peers to win POY honors — two seniors and one junior.
WHO WILL BE THE BEST PLAYER?
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin (4 votes)
“He’s just very versatile. He can do it all.”
That’s how one of Hayes’ peers summed him up in Washington. He averaged 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a junior in 2015-16, and is officially the Big Ten preseason player of the year. Given how the sport is moving more towards emphasizing versatility over specialization, Hayes seems like the perfect type of player who fills the box score and can play multiple positions on offense and defense. One thing he needs to work on is his outside shooting.
Hayes dropped from 39.6 percent in 2014-15 to 29.3 percent last season on his 3-point shooting. He also probably doesn’t end up approaching 2016 Big Ten POY Denzel Valentine’s assist total from last season (a conference-leading 7.8 per game), but something like Valentine’s 19.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game seems plausible.
Malcolm Hill, Illinois (3)
The leading returning scorer in the conference, Hill finished third in the league at 18.1 points per game as a junior in 2015-16. Hill also averaged 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and shot 82.1 percent from the free-throw line. But like Hayes, Hill slumped from beyond the 3-point arc.
Hill made 38.9 percent of his 3-point attempts as a sophomore but only 31.4 percent last season. If he bumps that up closer to 40, Hill could easily average more than 20 points per contest.
Melo Trimble, Maryland (3)
After a fabulous freshman season, Melo Trimble went through a funk during his sophomore campaign last season. Trimble did bump his assists per game up to 4.9 and shot better inside the 3-point line as a sophomore, but he slipped from 41.2 percent to 31.4 percent from beyond it.
The Terps will need a huge junior year from Trimble to remain among the contenders in the Big Ten. He’s an incredible weapon late in close games, and will likely shoulder even more responsibility this year with players like Jake Layman, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter off to professional basketball.