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Column: With or without the accolades, Brice Sensabaugh was the best freshman in the Big Ten

The same logic that earned Malaki Branham the B1G Freshman of the Year last season wound up costing Sensabaugh the same award one year later.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

With all due respect to Jalen Hood-Schifino — who is the undisputed Big Ten Freshman of the Year after earning the award Tuesday afternoon — Brice Sensabaugh was the best freshman the B1G had to offer this season.

When you look at the season-long statistics of both players, Sensabaugh exceeds Hood-Schifino in nearly every stat category. It’s actually harder to find stats that favor the Indiana’s star freshman than it is for Sensabaugh.

Creating a case for Sensabaugh to be freshman of the year doesn’t take jumping through hoops. Since his collegiate career is likely ending in the next 48 hours, let’s take a closer look at his stats this season, and how they stack up to the Big Ten FOTY’s:

How they stack up

Stat Category Sensabaugh Hood-Schifino
Stat Category Sensabaugh Hood-Schifino
PPG 16.5 13.4
Rebounds (per game) 5.2 4.1
FG % 47.90% 42.10%
3PT FG% 41.50% 36.30%
AST 1.2 3.8
TO 2 2.9
FT% 83% 78.30%
FT made/missed 83/100 54/69
Minutes per game 24.3 32.6
Steals 17 24
Blocks 11 3
PER 27 13.2
Win Share 3.7 1.8

However, there are a few things that should be pointed out. Hood-Schifino played considerably more minutes than Sensabaugh did, especially in the heart of conference play. Some may say that’s actually a credit to Sensabaugh, who scored more and was more efficient than Hood-Schifino in nearly 10 fewer minutes per game. Others will say that the best ability is availability, and that Hood-Schifino’s ability to play 30-plus minutes per game for a team that finished top-four in the Big Ten matters a ton — which it does!

Sensabaugh’s subpar and at times painful defense made it impossible to keep him on the floor. Hood-Schifino, while not a lockdown defender, didn’t have nearly the struggles Sensabaugh did on that end. Mike Woodson trusted JHS to stay on the floor and defend without becoming a target. Chris Holtmann did not always trust Sensabaugh to do the same. Film backs this up.

If Sensabaugh had played 32 minutes per game, his numbers would have blown Hood-Schifino’s out of the water. Sensabaugh’s stats extrapolated over 32.6 minutes per game (the amount JHS played per game) would have been 22.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per contest. Had those been his stats, the Freshman of the Year award would’ve been a lock, right?

The problem is, that’s not how it works. Playing both ends is required to be successful in the college game. Sensabaugh’s defense never really showed up this season, and it hindered his ability to stay on the court. If another freshman averaged seven points per game over 10 minutes each night, would we do the same math and try to make the same argument? It’s a slippery slope that we aught not approach.

The difference in minutes played is a big part of why Hood-Schifino took home the award, but the bigger — and more obvious reason — is the success of each of their teams. Ohio State finished in 13th place in the Big Ten with a 5-15 record in league play. Hood-Schifino’s Indiana team finished in third place in the conference with a 12-8 record in league play.

Sensabaugh was scoring points in losing efforts, while Schifino was more often than not hitting big shots that decided the outcomes of games. Whether people like it or not, that stuff matters. Sensabaugh could only do so much to carry a poorly constructed roster, and his team quickly sunk into the Big Ten basement once the calendar flipped to 2023.

Ohio State fans that are upset by this shouldn’t have too much of a qualm, however. Last year, Malaki Branham won the award over Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens in a very similar fashion — Branham’s Buckeyes finished in sixth place in the Big Ten, while Nebraska finished in 13th with a 4-16 record. Branham won the award despite averaging three points and 1.6 rebounds fewer than McGowens per game.

Branham also had an uneven year, having not really turned it on until the third month of the season. If you looked solely at statistics, McGowens was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, just like Sensabaugh would be this season if only the stats mattered.

Both Sensabaugh and Hood-Schifino will be entering the NBA Draft next month, and both are going to be first-round selections. Their games are fairly different, but both should find success in the league — Sensabaugh as a solo shot creator, and Hood Schifino as less of a pure scorer but more of a well-rounded contributor. The notion that JHS doesn’t deserve the award this year is silly, because he earned it. But the best freshman doesn’t always win the award — like this year.

One last statistic to take home is Sensabaugh’s impressive consistency for a struggling Ohio State team. From Dec. 3, 2022 to Feb. 5, 2023, he scored in double-digits in 16 consecutive games. He was also Ohio State’s leading scorer for 13 consecutive games during that stretch, which is the most consecutive games leading the team in scoring for any freshman in program history.

Hood-Schifino had a nine-game streak where he scored in double digits, but he wasn’t asked to carry nearly the same load offensively that Sensabaugh was, with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson also around.

Just like the MVP race sometimes boils down to “who was the most important player” versus “who was the best player” the Freshman of the Year award doesn’t automatically go to the best freshman in the league. Big numbers are great, but did they lead your team to success? For Sensabaugh — whether that’s his fault or not — they did not. For Hood-Schifino, it did.

One of them will be playing deep(er) into March than the other, and that guy took home the hardware.