You should ignore what this year’s Big Ten awards list tells you, because this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament made something perfectly clear: Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Thad Matta are the best player-coach combo in the conference.
Despite laying claim to the conference’s top coach and top player — as named by the media and Big Ten’s coaches — Purdue was upset in the second round of the conference tournament, and for the second time in as many weeks, the Boilermakers fell two games shy of a Buckeye conference crown.
Purdue senior forward JaJuan Johnson, who earlier in the week was named the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Boilermakers’ second-round matchup with Michigan State, but his effort wasn’t enough to keep the Spartans from picking up the win.
Conversely, Sullinger scored 20 points and pulled down 18 boards in OSU’s second-round overtime victory against Northwestern.
When the moment mattered most, the Buckeyes depended on the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, who scored 10 points in overtime and connected on 16 of 18 free throws in the game.
And, thanks to his team picking up the win, Sullinger kept on playing, as he averaged 16.3 points and 14 rebounds over three games — all OSU wins.
But Sullinger doesn’t deserve all the credit for the Buckeyes’ weekend success. Matta, who less than a week ago was passed over in favor of Purdue’s Matt Painter as the Big Ten Coach of the Year, led the Buckeyes to their second consecutive Big Ten Tournament title, the third of his career.
When it came to the conference awards, however, Matta was hurt by what he does best: recruiting. The Buckeyes boast four returning starters from last year’s Big Ten championship team, and added two incoming McDonald’s All-Americans before the season. Nevermind that recruiting is part of the coach’s job — his team is supposed to win, and people don’t get rewarded for doing only what’s expected of them.
Painter, however, benefited from having his best player, Robbie Hummel, tear his ACL before the season. Expectations were lowered, so losing the conference title by two games was not a disappointment, but rather an accomplishment.
Hummel’s injury also deserves some credit for Johnson’s Player of the Year award. Getting Purdue’s top player out of the way opened the door for Johnson to lead the conference in scoring en route to earning the Player of the Year award.
Sullinger, on the other hand, was punished for playing with superior talent surrounding him. Apparently, leading your team in scoring and rebounding while playing alongside three other All-Conference selections is viewed by the voting coaches and media as a negative, not a positive.
But Sullinger and Matta gladly will take a pair of conference titles over a pair of individual awards any day. And if this weekend wasn’t enough, the Buckeyes have another three weeks to show why they have the best coach and player in the conference — if not the nation.