The most productive and riveting intra-conference player-of-the-year race in college basketball this season is going down in the Big Ten.
Purdue‘s Caleb Swanigan and Wisconsin‘s Ethan Happ — both sophomores — have been truly tremendous, and while Swanigan’s season of dominance has received a lot of pub in the past month (in early January I wrote about how he could crush records), Happ hasn’t been as widely lauded, yet he’s arguably been more valuable and undeniably more efficient than Swanigan.
Happ’s team also has a two-game lead (8-1 vs. 7-3) on Swanigan’s in the Big Ten.
You might argue that, because Wisconsin tends to methodically make the NCAAs year after year, the program’s established this efficient mode of winning that tends to overshadow individual talents. To that I reply: Frank Kaminsky won multiple National Player of the Year awards just two seasons ago. Happ’s been shortchanged so far this year, and it might be because seniors/longtime starters Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have been outspoken on social and political issues since September, and with that came more attention to items not pertaining to basketball. Plus, Koenig and Hayes are still very good, and so Happ hasn’t been as singularly needed on his team the way Swanigan acts as a sun for Purdue.
Nevertheless, Happ has turned into Wisconsin’s best player. In his past four games, he’s averaging 22.0 points while shooting better than 60 percent from the field. Swanigan has had a double-double in 20 of Purdue’s 23 games this season. He leads the nation in that stat.
In terms of production and game-after-game-after-game performance at the major-conference level, this is looking like one of the better races for league player of the year we’ve seen in recent memory. Because they’ve been so consistently terrific, and because Purdue and Wisconsin have been in the rankings all season long, both qualify as worthy candidates in the National Player of the Year race, too.
It’s a great turn of events for the Big Ten, which is having a solid year but battling perception that the league is down.
Let’s take a gander at the numbers for these guys. Notice below that Happ’s not on the floor as often as Swanigan (I’ve always wondered how heavily minutes played, or lack thereof, should be taken into account with player of the year awards). “PER” stands for Player Efficiency Rating, and those numbers are via College Basketball Reference. PER is an increasingly accepted and referenced metric in college, and more commonly pro, basketball. “ORtg” is KenPom.com’s offensive rating, which in essence tells us how many points players score per 100 possessions. Anything above 110 is good. Anything above 120 is great. Anything beyond 130 is elite.
If you prefer per-40-minutes numbers, Happ is outpacing Swanigan in many categories. But while Happ seems to have more modern metrics on his side, in a twist, KenPom’s player-of-the-year formula currently slots Swanigan second and Happ third. (Villanova‘s Josh Hart is No. 1.)
If you’ve seen both players this season, you might lean Swanigan for Big Ten player of the year because of his force of existence; when you watch both guys play, he viscerally seems like he does more to affect the game. Swanigan is fed often — he just eats iron — and he’s a fascinating watch because, despite lacking high-level athleticism, he’s still able to pop out and drain 3-pointers. In fact, the 6-foot-9 Swanigan is exactly 50 percent from 3 this season — and it’s not as though he’s taken just, like, 12 attempts. Biggie’s 24 for 48 from beyond the arc. He’s good for at least one triple per game, which is a huge asset for the Boilermakers.
The 6-foot-10 Happ, on the other hand, has never attempted a 3-pointer in his career. Given the trend of stretch 4s in college and the NBA, Happ is an aberration. But his lack of 3-point shooting is atoned for by his 60-percent 2-point clip.
Another data point: Swanigan is shooting 79.4 percent from the foul line this season. Happ is poorer, just 50 percent.
How about head-to-head? In their only scheduled meeting this season, Purdue won at home 65-55 vs. the Badgers. In that game — the last time Wisconsin lost, and the Badgers’ only Big Ten defeat so far this season — Happ had 17 points on 16 shots, six steals, five rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes. Swanigan had 18 points on 10 shots, but had his sloppiest game of the season: eight turnovers, in addition to 12 rebounds.
Swanigan’s big-picture pace is tremendous. He should become the third player in 23 years to average 18 points, 13 rebounds and two assists. The only other guys to do that are Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin, both No. 1 picks. Swanigan is also 56 rebounds away (so: four or five games) from breaking Purdue’s single-season rebound record. He’s also likely to become the second player in 24 seasons at the D-I level to score 600 points, grab 400 rebounds and serve 100 assists in a season. (Towson’s Jerrell Benimon did this in 2013-14.)
You force me to pick right now, I’m leaning Swanigan, but it’s such a thin margin. Happ currently rates as the best player in college basketball in defensive rating (80.3) and the sometimes-misleading plus/minus (+17.8). Swanigan has more rebounds than any player in the sport, and if he makes one of his next two 3-pointers, he’ll be among the 20 most accurate long-distance shooters in the college basketball among all players with at least 50 attempts from 3 this season. Wild!
Either way, both are very fun to watch, and both have the talent to push their team to a Final Four. That’s what this is all about, right? No matter who wins Big Ten player of the year, each of these guys would trade that for a trip to Phoenix, without question. I’m just glad we have two big guys, sophomores to boot, playing drastically different styles yet still rubbing elbows to determine the best league player-of-the-year race we’ve seen in a long time.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / The best player-of-the-year race we’ve seen in a while is happening in the Big Ten