The most meaningless thing in sports may very well be
winning the Sun Belt in football being named to an all conference team. Think about it for a second, and you'll probably agree. Two lists are created, the first culled from the minds of the Fourth Estate of Big Ten journalists. These are fine fellows, to be sure, all capable of selecting the best team without shame or bias. Probably.
Which is why their lists usually don't coincide exactly with the other list - that selected by the unimpeachable coaches of our fair conference. Those lists were published yesterday, and the other notable conference honors were also given out. We'll get to those in a second. First let's look at the list of first teams.
Picking those teams should have been easy, especially this year. There were six clearly dominant players in the conference - two studs from each of the conference's top teams. From champion Indiana is Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, the driving force behind why Indiana won its first outright conference title since Bill Clinton was sworn in as President in 1993. From Michigan, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., who combined to create the best Michigan basketball team the country has seen since Chris Weber, Jalen Rose, et. al. were playing up in Ann Arbor.
The other two hail from Ohio State. Deshaun Thomas was the Buckeyes this year, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you beachfront property in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was the Big Ten's leading scorer, led the conference in free throws, and was in the top 15 in rebounds, three-point FG %, and played the 5th most minutes in the conference. These are important statistics that clearly separate Thomas as one of the conference's (if not the nation's) best players.
Those five players would make one hell of a pickup basketball team, to be sure. At least according to the Big Ten coaches, who selected those five as their first team all Big Ten. The media, however, chose to replace Hardaway, Jr. with Ohio State's Aaron Craft. Sure, Michigan's Burke is marginally the best point guard in the conference over Craft, but is there any doubt that Ohio State's defense, which was second stingiest in the league, is anywhere near that number without Craft? This is a player so talented, and annoying, that he just made Grantland's list of most hated NCAA Tourney players for the last 30 years. And not just because he's a rosy-cheeked white kid from Findlay.
But let's return to the lede, and remember that these lists are fairly meaningless. Sure, they are nice feathers in the caps of Ohio State's Thomas and Craft, Michigan's Hardaway and Burke, and Indiana's Zeller and Oladipo. But that's really all they are.
Where the judgment gets crazy, in my mind, is when it comes to naming the player and coach of the year. Because in basketball, just like in football, some things never change.
The big award, one of two that actually "matter" is the Conference Player of the Year award. This is given to the player judged most outstanding in the conference over the regular season. This year, the media and the coaches both selected Michigan's Burke as the best. Was he?
There's a great case that can be made for Indiana's Oladipo, who led IU to the aforementioned Big Ten regular season crown. Oladipo also had the distinction of beating Burke head-to-head. Twice. Including on the last day of the season IN ANN ARBOR to clinch the outright title. Burke outplayed Oladipo in those matchups, but flip those wins around, and Michigan is celebrating a championship, not Indiana, and Jeff Meyer doesn't get a verbal undressing by Tom Crean. But both are worthy candidates, and are assumed to be 1-2 on everyone's ballot.
But what about Deshaun Thomas?
Ohio State went 23-7, and 13-5 in conference. Do you want to know where it would have finished without the likes of Thomas? It's tough to fathom, considering the number of games where he was the leading scorer (20+ games), and number of games where he didn't lead the scoring, but was more than the difference in the game's final outcome (every other game). Other than Thomas, Ohio State didn't have one player in the top-30 in scoring in the Big Ten. Even with the great defense, the Buckeyes probably would have flipped five or more games in conference alone, and would be forced to do serious work in Chicago to even make it in the NCAA Tournament.
The Player of the Year goes to the best player. But Burke had plenty of support around him for the Wolverines, and Oladipo had plenty of help on his Hoosier team. Those two should have been 1-2 for most outstanding player, no argument. But the most valuable player on any team in the conference is undoubtedly Ohio State's Thomas.
And that leaves one more head-scratcher, the second most important award given out - Conference Coach of the Year. This year, the media and coaches agreed that the honor was to be bestowed upon Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. Is Ryan worthy of this award? Maybe. This was supposed to be a down year for the Badgers, after a run of great success earlier in the decade. Winning 21 games, 12 in conference, is quite an achievement considering Wisconsin's personnel losses. And tying for fourth overall in a conference with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State is nothing to scoff at.
But, just like it was in the 2012 football season, the award went to the coach who did the most with the least. In football, it was Bill O'Brien, who guided Penn State out of the worst collegiate athletics scandal ever, and positioned them ahead of the Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten Title Game. In basketball, the award goes to Ryan for doing the same thing, minus the scandals.
Jim Tressel never won Coach of the Year in football, because he was thought to always met expectations by being the best. The same, apparently, goes for basketball. Love him or hate him, Tom Crean is a much more logical choice than Ryan. When you consider where Indiana was when he took over the program five years ago, to rebuild IU into a national powerhouse in the current college basketball landscape is quite something. But Indiana started the year as the favorite, and met that expectation. Sorry, Tom, not this year.
And while we're on the subject, isn't there a better argument for Thad Matta than Bo Ryan? No, there isn't a Deshaun Thomas in Madison, but this Buckeye team, left for dead in the Big Ten race at many different points this year, not only finished strong, but won in Bloomington, and were a few Michigan free throws away from sharing the title with Indiana. Matta has been conference coach of the year twice, and been to two Finals Four, but this might have been his best effort to date.
But, again, its all about expectations. And even if a preseason media straw poll said Wisconsin would be the conference's fifth best team, that was a fairly lofty expectation for the Badgers to be that competitive, and they were. Everyone expected the Buckeyes and Hoosiers in the top tier of the conference, and they were. The victor gets the spoils, and somehow, in the messiness that is postseason Big Ten awards, that victor is Bo Ryan. Hoosiers and Buckeyes fans just have to deal with that.