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Big Ten Player of the Year Race: Is It JaJuan Johnson vs. Jared Sullinger vs. Jon Leuer?

JaJuan Johnson was attacked by orange basketball rims as a child. He swore a blood oath's revenge to destroy every one he saw since. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
JaJuan Johnson was attacked by orange basketball rims as a child. He swore a blood oath's revenge to destroy every one he saw since. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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It is hard to believe that we're getting close to postseason awards time, but with only six games left before the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis it is time to start thinking about these things. One of the most coveted awards is the Big Ten Player of the Year award. It is essentially an MVP award for the conference, and the winner is usually one of the favorites for the National Player of the year Award.

Nearly every team in the conference has a candidate for the Big Ten Player of the Year Award. Talor Battle is a great player that has willed Penn State into competitiveness. Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer are a great duo for Wisconsin. E`Twaun Moore is a great player, but has been too inconsistent to establish himself. That leaves Jared Sullinger and our own JaJuan Johnson as the favorites.

Sullinger is going to win the Freshman of the Year award. It is more of a shock when he doesn't win Freshman of the Week than when he does. He has established himself as a great contender with likely only Leuer, Johnson, and Taylor for the overall player of the Year Award. Let's look at the race a little closer:

JaJuan Johnson - Sr. - Purdue

20.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.0 apg, 2.2 bpg, 50.1% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 80.9% FT

JJ has a game-winner to his credit (against Penn State) and he currently leads the conference in scoring and blocks. He is 4th in rebounding, 7th in free throw percentage, 12th in field goal percentage. As a senior, those who decide the award have seen the body of work over his career, so a victory for him would possibly be a sort of lifetime achievement award for a guy that came back to school in order to better prepare himself for his future. Sullinger is not a player that will stay around four years, and he is crazy if he doesn't jump after this year.

In head to head matchups Johnson is 0-2 against Sullinger, Taylor, and Leuer. That can change this week since he faces both this week. IN his matchup with Sullinger he outscored him 22-17 while each had seven rebounds. Leuer outscored him 24-23 while outrebounding him 13-4. That is the biggest detriment to JJ's case. He has not been a consistent rebounder over the course of his career or this year.

Like Sullinger though, Johnson has been virtually unstoppable. His lowest scoring game in big Ten play is 15 points and his low mark for the season was 10 in the opener against Howard when he was barely needed. Some might give Johnson an edge because he is a better 3-point shooter, but most of Sullinger's long-range attempts have come in blowouts. Johnson's usually come in the flow of the offense, and Purdue has relied on them more than once. Purdue also looks for Johnson to score from the line. He has a great touch from the line for a big man, hitting over 80%. No one in the conference has shot or made more free throws than JJ (131 of 162). He has more than 20 attempts more than the next highest person.

Jared Sullinger - Fr. - Ohio State

18.ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.5 bpg, 56.9% FG, 27.3% 3FG (3 of 11), 69.6% FT

Sullinger is the freshman phenom that has come in better than advertised. He is the best player on possibly the best team in the nation and he has become the guy Ohio State goes to in the clutch. When they have needed late baskets against Northwestern, Penn State, and Illinois he has delivered by either scoring or getting to the line. His percentage at the line is below Johnson's, but he is far from Shaq-esque once he gets there.

Sullinger does not have JJ's range, but he doesn't need it because he is probably stronger near the basket. Johnson is more athletic, but Sullinger makes up for that in physicality. Sullinger is 5th in the league in scoring, 2nd in rebounding, 4th in field goal percentage (dunks and layups are high percentage shots), and 19th in free throw percentage. He isn't quite the defensive presence that JJ is, but that is because he has Dallas Lauderdale to hang out near the basket and collect blocked shots.

Lauderdale is a bit of an X-factor in this race because JJ does not have that protection on the other side of the rim. I have often joked that all Lauderdale can do is block shots, rebound, and dunk, but he does those three things extremely well. Because you have to respect Lauderdale on the block it opens u things for Sullinger that JJ doesn't get because Robbie Hummel is hurt and Travis Carroll, Patrick Bade, and Sandi Marcius don't play enough. Lauderdale gives you almost two blocks per game, and he can erase some of the defensive mistakes that Sullinger has.

Finally, Sullinger low on the season is eight points, while his high is 40 against IUPUI. No one has really stopped either player. Is Sullinger better than JJ as a freshman? Without a doubt. Is he better than JJ right now? It is difficult to say. JJ won the battle the first time, but it mattered little when Ohio State won by 23. Round two on Sunday will be interesting.

Jon Leuer - Sr. - Wisconsin

19.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.1 bpg, 47.7% FG, 43.5 3FG, 84.9 FT

Leuer is probably the number three player in the race right now, but I don't think he is as far behind Johnson and Sullinger as some people think. He is third in scoring behind Battle and Johnson, 5th in rebounding, third in free throw percentage, and 7th in three-point shooting. I think free throw percentage is the mark of a great player, especially in a race like this, because that tells me a player's team looks to him when the game is on the line. It also shows they are trying to attack the basket and do damage at the line.

Leuer's low scoring game is 10 points in the loss at Michigan State, and he may get docked slightly because the Badgers haven't been as efficient on the road as at home. He shoots a lot more threes than Sullinger and Johnson, but he hits them too, making him a matchup nightmare since he is 6'10". Like Johnson, he has an excellent teammate in Taylor that he can rely on for scoring. Taylor and E`Twaun Moore are each dynamic guards that can create their own shot and open things up inside. Leuer just stands out because he is the most perimeter-oriented of the big three.

When Leuer doesn't score, Wisconsin doesn't win. He has scored only ten points twice and both were losses to Michigan State and UNLV. Wisconsin's best road victory is probably at Marquette, which isn't as good as Purdue's or Ohio State's best road win. He has a chance to get a big road win this week at Purdue.

The longshots:

E'Twaun Moore - Sr. - Purdue

Talor Battle - Sr. -Penn State

Jordan Taylor - Jr. -Wisconsin

I thought there would be more players in this spot based on the number of great returning players we had in the league, but several have disappointed. Kalin Lucas and Demetri McCamey looked like the best point guards to start the year, but Taylor has outplayed them both. McCamey is virtually AWOL at this point for Illinois, while it is understandable that Lucas has struggled due to last year's injury. John Shurna has put up big numbers on a bad team and he has been hurt.

Of these three players, I would say Taylor has the best chance. Battle is fantastic, but he just not on a good enough team and he would need to be throwing down Playstation numbers every night to beat Sullinger, Johnson, or Leuer. Moore has been inconsistent, while Taylor is easily the most improved player in the league. Taylor gives Wisconsin two guys that can close out games at the line. He also has a signature moment of the season with 27 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds to beat the number one team in the country. He and Leuer make each other better, possibly more than Moore and Johnson do to each other.

My pick:

As of right now, I would give the award to Johnson. I know it comes off like I am a Purdue homer (which I am), but he has been more valuable to the Boilermakers. Sullinger is fantastic, but he has a better supporting cast around him. That's not to say Purdue's supporting cast is terrible, they just aren't as talented as Ohio State's. I would have Leuer a very close third, with Taylor fourth and Battle fifth. Battle deserves consideration because of what he is doing with a mediocre Penn State team.

Of course, things can change over the next six games. Johnson's stock has the best chance to go up with two huge games against Leuer and Sullinger this week, but Leuer gets Sullinger on the final day of the regular season. This race will likely come down to that.

My Big Ten Player of the year Pick: JaJuan Johnson - Sr. - Purdue

All-Conference 1st Team:

Johnson, Jared Sullinger, Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor, Talor Battle

All-Conference 2nd Team:

E'Twaun Moore, Kalin Lucas, John Shurna, Trevor Mbakwe, Draymond Green

Freshman team:

Sullinger, Tim Hardaway Jr., Melsahn Basabe, Jereme Richmond, Aaron Craft