As the 2013-14 season nears, we run down some of the best players in the Big Ten by specialty. Today, we continue with the league’s top ten defenders (returning players only). Previously: Best Rebounders, Best Newcomers
As the nation’s premiere basketball conference, the Big Ten is known for its great players but perhaps even more for its staunch defense. Teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana have built their success with not only tremendous team defense but also terrific individual defenders. Defense isn’t as easily defined by statistics as shooting or passing but there are some tools available. Steal and block percentages calculate the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal or block by the given player while he’s on the floor and we also have a defensive points per possession allowed metric from Synergy Sports.
1. Aaron Craft (6-foot-2, Ohio State)
Stls/Game: 2.1, Stl%: 3.8, Def. PPP: .703 PPP
Need we elaborate? Aaron Craft is back, and with Victor Oladipo gone, there is little debate that Ohio State’s lead guard is the best perimeter defender in the Big Ten — in fact, Craft may be the best guard defender in the country. Michigan fans are especially aware of Craft’s unique defensive skill set after watching their point guard and consensus Player of the Year be endlessly frustrated by Craft during both of Michigan’s meetings with Ohio State over the last two seasons. Craft’s mastery doesn’t necessarily lie in his ability to steal the ball, though he has some of the quickest hands in the league, but rather in how physical he can be on defense without fouling. Craft is as tough as they come, and an excellent defender in both on-and-off-ball situations. With expert footwork and positioning, if you’re lucky enough to get the ball with Craft draped all over you, it’s unlikely you’re getting to the basket.
2. Shannon Scott (6-foot-1, Ohio State)
Stls/Game: 1.7, Stl%: 5.1, Def. PPP: .552
Two Buckeyes make up the top two spots in our ranking, and it makes sense considering that Ohio State possessed a top-10 defense nationally last year. Shannon Scott’s playing time may have been limited last season, but the guard still managed to be an all-Big Ten defensive team pick because of his nose for the ball. His steal rate of 5.1 percent places him eighth nationally in that category, and he always seemed to position himself in the right place at the right time. Take the Buckeyes’ huge win over then-No.2 Indiana at Assembly Hall last season: Craft was the defensive star, but Scott was the perfect complement, adding four steals of his own and one that arguably decided the game late.
3. AJ Hammons (7-foot, Purdue)
Blks/Game: 2, Blk%: 8.7, Def. PPP: .78
The defensive potential is absolutely through the roof for Purdue’s sophomore center, and he already emerged as a force last season. Hammons’ block rate is behind only Amir Williams of Ohio State, and the 7-footer played more minutes than the Buckeye big man. Hammons is gifted not only with height and length, but also with quick feet and a good defensive awareness that allows him to position himself well against driving guards and provide excellent help defense. That awareness will only get better now that he has a year under his belt. Hammons is also capable of exploding with defensive production — after a slow defensive start to last year’s season, Hammons showed the Big Ten what he was capable of against Nebraska and Penn State in January, with games of five and six blocks respectively. His ability to protect the rim rubbed off on his team, Purdue had the second 2-point field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten last year.
4. Jordan Morgan (6-foot-9, Michigan)
Blks/Game: 0.1, Blk%: 0.6, Def. PPP: .558
Jordan Morgan’s numbers are nothing to scream at, but are they ever? Michigan’s stalwart big man would be at the top of a list of players who draw the most charges, and thanks to his excellent defensive positioning, Morgan has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive big men and was named to the All-Big Ten Defensive team last season. In a statistic that may come closest to revealing his defensive skill, Morgan was the defender responsible for ending 104 offensive possessions last season — on those possessions, offensive players scored just 58 points. That 0.558 points per possession mark placed him 10th in the country and third in the Big Ten in that category.
5. Branden Dawson (6-foot-6, Michigan State)
Stls/Game: 1.6, Blk/Game: 0.9, Stl%: 3.6, Blk%: 3.8
For Michigan State, Branden Dawson is a do-it-all defender. The athletically gifted swingman saw a dropoff in his block numbers this past season but an uptick in steal numbers. Dawson is capable of guarding nearly any position on the court because of his quickness and athleticism, and the diversity of his defensive accomplishments lends credibility to that statement: Dawson was one of the top 15 players in the Big Ten when it comes to block percentage last season — and is the shortest player on that list — and claimed the fifth-best steal percentage in the conference — while being the tallest player in the top five. Michigan fans may remember Dawson’s defensive prowess from how he shut down Tim Hardaway Jr. during last year’s game in East Lansing, holding the future first-round draft pick to two points.
6. Amir Williams (6-foot-11, Ohio State)
Blks/Game: 1.4, Blk%: 9.7, Def. PPP: .801
Entering his junior season, Ohio State fans are hoping this is the year Amir Williams realizes his potential as a defensive force and inside finisher. Last season, Williams possessed the highest block percentage of any player in the Big Ten, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — he played only around 47 percent of available minutes and his shot-blocking talent is through the roof. The problem last year wasn’t his defense necessarily but his rebounding and his hands. Williams experienced significant difficulty catching the ball off drive-and dish opportunities from his guards, and his defensive rebounding was dwarfed by his teammate Evan Ravenel, who stands three inches shorter. However, Williams came on strong in the NCAA tournament at the end of last season, and we could be looking at a breakout season for Ohio State’s talented big.
7. Mitch McGary (6-foot-10, Michigan)
Stls/Game: 1.1, Blks/Game: 0.7, Stl%: 3.4, Blk%: 3.9
McGary is rare breed in many ways, but one of the most obvious is the way he plays defense. Michigan’s star big man, at 6-foot-10, is equally adept at stealing the ball as he is at blocking shots. Michigan fans are very familiar with the way McGary uses his uncanny quickness to jump passing lanes at half court, but don’t be surprised if his block numbers go down a bit this season. Last year, McGary found himself out of position on the defensive glass because of recklessly attempting blocks, a habit Beilein likely wants to curtail.
8. Austin Hollins (6-foot-4, Minnesota)
Stls/Game: 1.7, Stl%: 3.7, Def. PPP:.74
Austin Hollins was a major part of Minnesota’s success last season, both on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. But despite scoring over 10 points per game for the Gophers, Hollins is known for his defense. Almost always guarding the opposing team’s toughest matchup, Hollins notched the fourth-best steal rate in the league last year — and most of his best defensive nights came against Minnesota’s toughest opponents; Hollins racked up six steals against Memphis and four steals each against Michigan, Illinois and UCLA.
9. Nnanna Egwu (6-foot-11, Illinois)
Blks/Game: 1.4, Blk%: 6.3, Def. PPP: .778
Egwu is yet another in the line of extremely talented, young Big Ten shot-blockers looking to fulfill their potential on the defensive end of the floor. Egwu had a solid year defensively last season with good block numbers, but given his quickness, he should be even better this season — Michigan fans will remember his curious tendency to switch onto Trey Burke off pick-and-rolls last year, and his even more curious tendency to stay in front of last year’s Player of the Year on the perimeter.
10. Keith Appling (6-foot-2, Michigan State)
Stls/Game: 1.3, Stl%: 2.4, Def. PPP: ..784
The more Appling struggles on offense, the less attention gets paid to his defense, which has been consistently very good since he arrived in East Lansing. While his numbers aren’t off the charts, Appling consistently matches up with the opposing team’s best offensive players despite his usual size disadvantage. NBA scouts love his defensive ability, and Appling anchors what is consistently one of the Big Ten’s best defenses year-in and year-out.