The Big Ten is set to announce postseason honors on Monday, including all-conference teams and the Player of the Year. In a just world, Megan Gustafson, Iowa's stellar junior center, should be the player honored as Big Ten Player of the Year. Gustafson has put together a season that's not just spectacular compared to her Big Ten peers -- it's very likely the greatest season in Iowa history.
Gustafson broke the single-season school scoring record against Rutgers last Wednesday and added to her record with 36 points against Indiana on Saturday. She's posted 734 points so far, 62 more than Cindy Haugejorde's previous school record. She still has at least two more games this season to add to that record, too. If Iowa plays another five games this season (say, three games in the Big Ten Tournament and two more in the NCAA Tournament -- hardly impossible), she could post another 125 points (assuming she maintains her 25 ppg average) and hit 850 points.
She also broke her own single-season rebounding record against Rutgers, and added to that with 15 more rebounds against Indiana. That gave her 370 rebounds on the season, 27 more than she had last year. She has a chance to push that mark well over 400 if Iowa's season lasts more than the minimum two more games.
But even without those hypothetical additional numbers, what Gustafson has done this year stands on its own, especially against her Big Ten peers:
- Gustafson leads the league in scoring (25.3 ppg)
- She leads the league in rebounding (12.8 rpg)
- She's crushing the league in field goal percentage (.667; second place is .618)
- She's also 5th in the league in blocks (2.0 bpg)
- She has 26 double-doubles in 29 games (second place in the B1G is 17)
- Oh, and she's earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors a record-breaking 8 times
She does all that while routinely facing double-teams and enduring a physical pounding in the post as well. She has simply been an unstoppable force all season long. Nor has she been producing empty stats for a bad or below-average team; she's been the engine that makes everything go for an Iowa team that's gone 23-6 overall and 11-5 in the Big Ten (tied for third). Her season-long averages are stunning enough, but her numbers are even better in Big Ten-only play (against stronger opposition): 27.8 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 2.3 bpg. She's improved as the season has progressed and has scored at least 25 points in every game of Iowa's current 7-game winning streak.
In most years her performance would make her an absolute lock to win Big Ten Player of the Year. The only reason she's not a lock this year is because of the presence of one Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State's superstar senior guard. Mitchell is second in the Big Ten in scoring (24.4 ppg) and ranks in the top ten in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Mitchell's value is heavily tied up in her scoring, though; she doesn't rank in the top ten in rebounds, assists, or steals.
As The Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow notes, Mitchell's best argument probably involves invoking the "best player on the best team" canard -- she's unquestionably OSU's leader and OSU, the Big Ten regular season champion, certainly seems to be the best team in the league. That said, they hardly ran away with the league with their 13-3 record; that was just a game better than second-place Maryland, and two games better than 11-5 Iowa (tied for third place).
Another argument for Mitchell rests with the brilliant career she's put together at Ohio State -- she's the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer -- but the award is meant to be for the best player this season, not the best player over the last 3-4 seasons. The career achievement argument could also cut against Mitchell as well -- she's already won Big Ten Player of the Year honors twice in her career (in 2015 and 2017). It's not as though she's been ignored or overlooked during her stellar OSU career and this would be the final opportunity to recognize her excellence -- quite the opposite, in fact. She has been regularly and frequently celebrated.
Mitchell has had a superb season, one that could easily be worthy of Big Ten Player of the Year honors in many years. But not this year. Not with a soft-spoken juggernaut from small-town Wisconsin in the running who has put together one of the most superlative-defying seasons in recent memory. Megan Gustafson has been nothing short of extraordinary this season and she should be the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Don't overthink this one, Big Ten coaches and media. #VoteGustafson