Big Ten Basketball: The 10 Most Relentless Players in the B1G
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The Big Ten isn't short on star power, but for those players not blessed with Trey Burke's quickness or Cody Zeller's size, it comes down to effort.
These 10 players have distinguished themselves through tireless work on defense, offense, transition, whatever. It doesn't matter in what capacity your team needs you. These dogged workers know that and they aren't just successful because of one specialization.
That's because effort isn't a switch that players can simply turn on and off. Either they are relentless all the time, or they aren't. It's easier to see hard work manifested on defense since it's often ugly, but that didn't discredit diligent offensive rebounders when compiling this list.
The Big Ten is about effort, and the following 10 players have championed that attitude.
10. Branden Dawson
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Part of the reason that rebounding has become a staple of Michigan State’s identity is because Tom Izzo recruits players like Dawson, who fearlessly bound into the fray searching for the rock.
Dawson, at 6’6’’ 230 pounds, is already built like a solid NBA player and anyone who chooses to stand in his way of a rebound is just silly. While his offensive game is primarily built within five feet of the basket, he’s a constant presence around the hoop on both ends of the floor. His size gives Izzo flexibility to put him on forwards with little fear of the sophomore becoming physically overmatched.
Both his steal rate (four percent) and his block percentage (3.8) are nationally ranked by KenPom.com’s advanced metric system.
9. Aaron White
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Few B1G players can compare with Iowa’s Aaron White in terms of his all-out contributions to his team.
The 6’8’’ forward is among the top of nearly every major category for Iowa save for assists, and he’s the primary reason why the Hawkeyes still have an outside shot at the NCAA tournament. (They are in, according to CBS’ Doug Gottlieb).
At 6.2 rebounds per game, he’s by far the team’s leading rebounder, and his exhaustive defense (1.1 steals, .7 blocks) has helped the Hawkeyes earn the fourth-lowest defensive field goal percentage in the conference.
White runs the floor extremely well for a big man, often leading transition run-outs, and he’s also an excellent offensive rebounder when the Hawkeyes settle into their halfcourt sets. And although he doesn’t shoot them frequently, he’s not afraid to hoist a few three-pointers if the situation presents itself.
A win or two in the Big Ten tournament may solidify Iowa’s chances at reaching the tournament and help spotlight this underappreciated big man.
8. Jared Berggren
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A number of Wisconsin players (forward Mike Bruesewitz and guard Ben Brust) fit the bill for this category, but center Jared Berggren is the Badgers’ representative mostly for his work on the glass.
Bo Ryan’s system works because it forces the other team to wear itself out by defending for extended period times. If Wisconsin didn’t rebound opponents’ misses, it would inevitably seal its own fate. But Berggren, at 6’10’’, mops up the seventh-most defensive rebounds (4.4) in the Big Ten, while also corralling the third-most offensive boards (2.6). He's also the school's all-time leader in blocked shots (130).
He’s terribly efficient in just 28 minutes a night, knocking down 48 percent of his shots, draining 73 percent of his free throws, and swatting two shots per game. It’s his all-around effort that makes him the leader of Wisconsin’s frontcourt.
7. D.J. Byrd
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You can’t have a list of the most relentless players in the Big Ten without a representative from Purdue, long thought of as the hardest-working team in the conference.
During Sunday’s shocking upset win over Wisconsin, D.J. Byrd, the Boilermakers’ stout guard, drained six three-pointers and finished with a game-high 22 points. None of his threes were the result of him beating his man one-on-one. Rather they were the reward for nonstop movement around screens or hustle plays off transition opportunities.
Byrd also had three second-half steals off the stingy Badgers, one of which saw him dive on the floor, outlet to a teammate, and finally hit a three as a trailing shooter. None of this was rare for Byrd, who, as a senior, has set the tone for the young team all season.
Players such as Terone and Ronnie Johnson take after their blue-collar coach Matt Painter as well, but Byrd is a jump-shooting threat at all times for Purdue, and he’s a constant pest on the defensive end.
6. Jermaine Marshall
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No team has endured as much as Pat Chambers’ Nittany Lions, who until last week, were sitting at 0-14 in conference play, threatening to become the first B1G team in history to finish 0-18.
But on Feb. 27 at the Bryce Jordan Center against one of the most unlikely opponents in then-No. 4 Michigan, the Lions swung a stunning 84-78 upset. To compete even in the face of such overwhelming odds illustrates great tenacity, but Jermaine Marshall took it upon himself to end Penn State’s dubious streak.
He attacked from all angles on the perimeter, hitting a career-high six three-pointers, as he finished with 25 points on the evening. He also spun away from Michigan’s Trey Burke and swooped under forward Glenn Robinson III for the decisive lay-in with just 1:06 left.
This season’s results aren’t at all indicative of the amount of work Marshall (15.2 points) and fellow backcourt mate D.J. Newbill (15.9) have invested, but the stunning victory was the result of an unyielding attitude which derives from Chambers.
5. Adreian Payne
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Has anyone not named Oladipo seen his stock skyrocket faster than Michigan State’s stretch forward Adreian Payne? Last year the 6’10’’ post man underwhelmed with just 4.2 rebounds and seven points per game.
But this season, as Payne has parlayed his potential into more than 24 minutes of action, the junior has hauled in 7.4 rebounds and upped his scoring average to over 10 points per game. He hasn’t hit a remarkable growth spurt. It’s that his effort has improved tremendously.
It’s unfortunate that the best four-game stretch of his career overlaps with Michigan State’s three-game losing streak, but Payne has still managed to put up elite numbers despite the difficult competition. He’s averaged 15.2 points on 56 percent shooting, knocked down 5-of-12 three-pointers, and he’s he tied or surpassed his previous season-high of 12 rebounds in three of the four games.
It’s safe to say the “light” has officially turned on for the imposing junior.
4. Mitch McGary
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Michigan’s freshman forward Mitch McGary has been a spark plug off the bench for coach John Beilein’s team.
Aside from starting forward Jordan Morgan, the Wolverines don’t have a ton of depth in the post. McGary, at 6’10’’, gives Michigan size, strength and a motor capable of keeping pace with their transition-oriented offense.
Over the last nine games, McGary has played a crucial role as Morgan was recovering from a severe ankle sprain. He’s a relentless pest on defense who helped contain Michigan State’s Derrick Nix to just 2-of-9 shooting in the Wolverines’ pivotal win over the Spartans on March 3. In that game, Michigan State’s frontcourt turned the ball over 10 different times.
McGary’s offensive game is still developing and his skills are admittedly raw, but it’s his hustle that keeps him in the rotation. According to KenPom.com, McGary is the eighth-best offensive rebounder in the country, and he’s also nationally ranked in regards to defensive rebounding, steals, and block percentage.
3. Trevor Mbakwe
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Although the 6’8’’ senior is relatively short for the center position, Mbakwe’s strength in the paint and energy when chasing missed shots are nearly unparalleled.
His 8.8 rebounds per game lead the Big Ten, but it’s when he picks up the scent of a missed shot on the offensive end that his non-stop motor kicks in. Mbakwe has the second-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the Big Ten at 16.9 percent and his 99 second-chance offensive boards lead the league.
His relentless attitude off of Minnesota’s missed shots is the primary reason why the Gophers upset Indiana on Feb. 26. Mbakwe finished with 12 rebounds in the 77-73 win, six of which came on the offensive glass. He scored on either layups or free throws on four of his six second-chance efforts and nearly matched the Hoosiers’ entire offensive rebounding total (8).
2. Aaron Craft
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Anyone who’s ever seen Craft play defense knows of the junior’s tenacious on-ball tendencies. He’s as unrelenting and ruthless as defenders come.
Because of his extensive film work, Craft is well aware of opposing dribblers’ habits and he’s excellent at anticipating opponents’ moves. Once he recognizes a certain dribble pattern, he seizes his opportunity and pounces on the flaw, hounding the dribbler until he forces a turnover or compels his man to call a timeout.
Craft’s 1.9 steals per game are second in the B1G, but that number doesn’t quantify how many plays he alters just by wreaking havoc on an offense’s flow.
With Ohio State's lack of scoring options, Craft has also become a tireless worker on the offensive end. Against Indiana on Tuesday, he continued to attack the paint in the second half, hitting running layups and off-balance jumpers to finish with 15 points and help spring the upset.
1. Victor Oladipo
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Oladipo’s numbers don’t tell the whole story. Yes, he leads the Big Ten in steals with 2.2 per game and averages just under a block per game, but it’s his hustle that makes the gifted athlete so unique.
I submit the last 47 seconds against Michigan State on Feb. 19 as defense. After following up a missed layup by one of his teammates, Oladipo tipped in a shot along the baseline to take the lead. He then sprung loose on an inbounds pass for a breakaway dunk to extend that lead. Next, he battled for a defensive rebound off a missed free throw and then iced the game with two hits from the charity stripe.
No other player in the Big Ten is as singularly capable of impacting a game in so many ways as Oladipo. His dunks are something to behold, his blocks even more so.
On transition layups, opponents should know better than to casually coast towards the rim, for Oladipo always seems to be lurking at the right time.
His athleticism, coupled with his motor, makes him the Big Ten’s most relentless player.