He put together an impressive season, but in the end it was not enough for Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger to steal the Big Ten’s top individual award from Purdue senior JaJuan Johnson.
The Big Ten’s leading scorer in Johnson was voted the conference’s player of the year by both the coaches and media, fending off competition from Sullinger and a host of others in what league coaches described as one of the tightest races in recent history.
“Boy, this is a hard year in this league too because some guys have performed at a high level,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said prior to the results being announced. “Some have been there all year, some have been really good part of the year. It’s going to be an interesting race.”
The Buckeyes were well-represented on the all-conference teams, however. In both polls, Sullinger was a first-team all-league pick, senior David Lighty and junior William Buford were each named second-team all-Big Ten and senior Jon Diebler was named to the league’s third team.
Lighty and freshman Aaron Craft were named to the all-defensive team while Craft was also picked as the sixth man of the year by the coaches. The media does not vote for those honors.
“We are fortunate to play in a tremendous league with outstanding players,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said in a statement. “To have five of our top six players recognized with postseason honors is a tribute to their hard work.”
In addition, Sullinger was a unanimous pick in both polls for freshman of the year honors and Craft earned honorable mention all-league honors in the media poll.
“I was honestly surprised to hear I was named freshman of the year,” Sullinger said. “There are a lot of talented freshman in the Big Ten.”
Earlier in the day, all 11 coaches were asked who they voted for. Just one revealed his selection: Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, who said Sullinger’s case for player of the year was hindered by his team’s overall depth.
“One of the reasons they’re one of the favorites to win the national championship is because they … share the ball like very few teams that I’ve ever coached against,” he said. “JaJuan, let’s face it: they were going to him. They go to him. E’Twaun Moore is a first-round pick but he had a slump midway through the season and JaJuan Johnson carried that team during that period of time.
“I’ve been impressed with him and felt like he deserved it.”
Neither Matta nor Purdue’s Matt Painter would divulge if they voted for their own player, but each made a case for why others should have done so. Following the Buckeyes’ season-ending win against Wisconsin on Sunday, Sullinger told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that he would vote for Johnson.
Johnson ended the regular season averaging 20.5 points per game while Sullinger finished sixth in the league and first for the Buckeyes at 17.3. The freshman held the rebounding edge on Johnson with an average of 9.7 boards per game that came in behind just Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, who grabbed 10.5 per contest. Johnson was fourth at 8.1 per game.
Sullinger was named the conference’s player of the week four times during the season while Johnson earned the honor just once. In addition, Sullinger was named the Big Ten freshman of the week 12 times.
As OSU and Purdue split the season series, Sullinger put up the bigger numbers by going 16 of 26 (61.5 percent) from the floor and averaging 21.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. Johnson – who took a backseat to teammate E’Twaun Moore’s 38-point outburst against the Buckeyes in West Lafayette – went 13 for 27 (48.1 percent) from the floor against OSU and averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 boards.
Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said they deserved to share the honor.
“They’re probably co-MVPs in my opinion because of what they did for their teams,” he said.
After the Buckeyes defeated his team in Columbus on Feb. 22, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said he would vote for Lighty as the league’s most valuable player. Today, he backtracked on those thoughts a bit.
“To me, the big thing is, is it MVP or most outstanding player?” he said. “If I had an MVP vote, I don’t have any doubt I would vote for David Lighty. I think all the things he gave to the team, I think he’s the MVP.
“The most outstanding player is a little different to me. That’s a little more of an individual thing. You have to consider Sullinger and JaJuan Johnson, (Wisconsin’s) Jordan Taylor (and Jon) Leuer and (Purdue’s) E’Twaun Moore because they probably gave a little better numbers.”
Johnson, Moore and Taylor each joined Sullinger on each first-team all-conference list. The media picked Penn State's Talor Battle to round out the list while the coaches went with Leuer. Johnson was a unanimous pick by both groups while Taylor as a unanimous selection by the media.
Painter also brought home coach of the year honors in both polls.