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Big Ten player of the year award could be on the line when Maryland meets Ohio State

COLLEGE PARK — The question is actually no question at all in her coach's estimation. The answer, according to her longtime partner in crime: "Easy money."

But for a good 10 seconds Friday after practice inside Xfinity Center, Brionna Jones was silent, thinking. The tension was a tad unbearable. Would the senior center who has done so much for the Maryland women's basketball team this season also now do … self-promotion?

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"I mean," she began, a bit hesitantly, "right now, my mind's between Kelsey Mitchell and Tori Jankoska," and she offered a short explanation for why the respective Ohio State and Michigan State guards warranted consideration for Big Ten Conference Player of the Year honors.

Then, just as all hope seemed lost, after a long 20 seconds and a little prying: "And then I'd like to throw myself in the conversation."

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The No. 2 Terps have won a lot this season — 26 victories in 27 games, including 14 straight — but this was perhaps a triumph in itself, the conference's most humble star acknowledging that she might also be its brightest.

And for those unconvinced (including Jones herself, apparently), there is the matter of the league's game of the year.

On Monday night, Maryland (26-1, 14-0) will play No. 12 Ohio State (23-5, 13-1) in Columbus on national television. The Buckeyes are the only Big Ten team to have beaten the Terps in their nearly three years of conference membership, both losses handed out last year. A Maryland win would assure the program its third straight outright regular-season title and, just as important, pad its NCAA tournament resume.

But inside the showdown for league supremacy that everyone expected is a debate that few did. Ohio State's Mitchell was a unanimous All-American as a sophomore, is the Big Ten's leading scorer as a junior and could be the WNBA draft's first overall pick this April. Jones might be playing better.

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"I wouldn't be upset if they were co-players of the year," said Christy Winters-Scott, a Big Ten Network analyst and former Maryland star. "If you pick one, the other one, I feel, gets extremely slighted because of what they do."

What Mitchell does is score like it was a birthright. She leads the Big Ten in points per game (23.2). She has four 30-plus-point games this season. She hasn't scored fewer than 13.

But despite more time to rest — Mitchell is playing almost three minutes per game less than last season — her field-goal percentage (44.4) and 3-point accuracy (38.2) have dropped. She has improved as a passer, but the coaches and media who voted her the Big Ten's Preseason Player of the Year expecting transcendence have gotten only greatness.

What Jones does is almost never miss shots and almost always collect misses. The Aberdeen graduate, who was not a unanimous preseason All-Big Ten pick by the media, is averaging 19.1 points (seventh most in the Big Ten) and 10.6 rebounds (third most) this season. Those numbers are inflation-proof, too: In conference play, they climb to 20.5 points (fourth) and 11.4 rebounds (first).

Add in a Division I-best field-goal percentage (69.0, which would set a conference record), and Jones, upon further review, "has had the more consistent season," Winters-Scott said. "And I know Kelsey's numbers are what they are, but I think night in, night out, double double-wise, Brionna's maybe been a pinch more consistent."

The defensive challenges that Mitchell and Jones pose could be amplified Monday. Terps freshman point guard Destiny Slocum missed Wednesday's win against Wisconsin with an illness, possibly leaving backup Ieshia Small to step in and defend the fill-it-up guard who scored a combined 61 points in two games against Maryland last season.

Inside, Ohio State forward Stephanie Mavunga, the conference's leading rebounder, was ruled out "for the foreseeable future" after suffering a foot injury Feb. 9. That will leave the difficult task of slowing Jones to someone else.

"I honestly feel bad for post players who have to match up against [Jones]," said Terps senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who, like her coach, is a backer for Jones as conference player of the year. "Because it's like: 'Yeah. Good luck.'"

Frese said Jones is having an "MVP type of year," but there is some disagreement on her team. Freshman wing Kaila Charles' loyalties are split between Jones and Walker-Kimbrough. She said she'd be happy if either won, but that their candidacies are "pretty even."

It was a magnanimous gesture, if an unsurprising one. After all, if Jones is overlooking her player of the year chances, her younger teammates can be forgiven for the same.

"I think if [the award] comes, it comes out of our success," Jones said. "And I'll be excited for that."

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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