Rutgers senior Caleb McConnell was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by the coaches. It’s the first major award given to a Rutgers player since joining the conference eight seasons ago. McConnell was also named to the All-Big Ten Defensive Team as well as an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection by the media.
McConnell led the conference in total steals (43) and steals per game (2.2) during the 20 game regular season. In addition, he finished 15th in total defensive rebounds (86) and defensive rebounds per game (4.3). He also finished tied for 24th in league play with 11 blocked shots and tied for 22nd with 0.6 blocks per game.
In regard to analytics, McConnell has the 2nd best steal rate (4.3%) and is 24th in both defensive rebounding rate (16.9%) and block rate (2.2%) in Big Ten play.
“In my 30-plus years of coaching, I have coached a lot of great defenders and I can truly say Caleb McConnell is a one-of-a-kind defensive player, who can guard all five spots,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “I want to congratulate Caleb on this prestigious award. I truly believe he is not only the best defender in the Big Ten Conference, but the best defender in the country.”
He asserted himself in February five straight games with at least three steals and his total of 21 steals over that stretch was the second most in the Big Ten in the last 20 years. It coincided with Rutgers becoming the first unranked team in college basketball history to defeat ranked teams in four consecutive games. McConnell had 4 steals each in wins over No. 12 Illinois, No. 13 Michigan State and No. 16 Ohio State, as well as 6 steals in the road victory at No. 16 Wisconsin.
The most iconic moment during that historic stretch was McConnell’s miraculous block in transition late against the Buckeyes that turned the game and arguably the season around.
In two head to head matchups against Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, McConnell held the fourth leading scorer, who averaged 19.9 points per game in conference play, to just 13.0 points per game on just 37.9% shooting from the floor. That included just 1 of 6 from three-point range, as well as only on offensive rebound and one assist in both meetings.
After the two games competing against each other, Davis said of McConnell, “It was really frustrating because Caleb McConnell is a really good defender. He’s definitely the toughest guy to face. He was on me the whole game and made it really tough for me to get buckets. He uses his hands and his athleticism really well. He can guard the one through four really well. He’s definitely the key piece to their defense and in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Every time he goes out of the game, I have a little sigh of relief knowing that I don’t have to have someone like that tailing me around.”
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said of McConnell’s defense after the two Wisconsin games, “I couldn’t be more proud of his development during both games versus Johnny Davis. When they first got here, you know, they played high school defense, you know, just kind of guard whoever you guard. Now they play team defense. Caleb’s taking on the leading scorers in the country at Iowa, you know, here at Wisconsin. I mean, the guys he has to play every night and he embraces that. He’s as good a defender as you’ll see. He’s really worked out. He watches film, you know, he stays extra. He wants to know and he wants to take on that challenge. I’ve been blessed to coach a guy like that. It’s a great feeling. His improvement is impressive, he has just been unbelievable on that end of the floor. He can guard multiple positions and he can guard a lot of different guys. So they spend a lot of energy.”
McConnell was previously named a semifinalist for 2022 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award. He is just one of ten players across college basketball included as well as the only representative from the Big Ten. McConnell is the first Rutgers player to win a conference Defensive Player of the Year award since Hamady N’Diaye won Big East DPOY in 2010.
In addition to McConnell, Ron Harper Jr. was named Second Team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and media, becoming the first Rutgers player to earn such a high conference honor since Quincy Douby was a First Team All-Big East selection in 2006. In addition, Geo Baker was named Third Team All-Big Ten by the coaches and an honorable mention selection by the media. Paul Mulcahy and Cliff Omoruyi join McConnell and Baker as honorable mention selections by the media. Click here to read more.
Rutgers earned the coveted double bye in this week’s Big Ten Tournament as the No. 4 seed and will play the winner of No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 12 Northwestern OR No. 13 Nebraska on Friday, March 11 around 2 p.m. ET.