- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Typically, a conference freshman of the year race is a pretty boring affair. Sometimes, it's academic. Often, it bears little relation to first-team all-conference honors or the overall player of the year discussion. And anyway, who really cares about freshman of the year? Nice award and all, but ... meh. It's not exactly going to lead "Pardon the Interruption." ("OK, Wilbon. D'Angelo Harrison? Or, your BOY, Moe Harkless? Who ya got?")
But this year's Big Ten FOY race is actually pretty compelling. Why? Because two of the league's top 10 players — maybe even two of its top five — happen to be freshmen. They are Michigan point guard Trey Burke and Indiana center Cody Zeller, and both are probably worthy of first-team all-conference honors when the league announces its individual awards at 7 p.m. ET Monday. But who was the better freshman?
What got me thinking about this, other than the fact both are really good at basketball, was (of course), an exchange on Twitter. Late last week, during yet another impressive Burke performance in the Wolverines' win against Illinois, my blog compadre Myron Medcalf tweeted the following: "Just so I'm clear...Why isn't Trey Burke Big Ten freshman of the year?" I did a quick double-take and shot back what I thought was a pretty good reason why: "Erm ... Cody Zeller?" Myron agreed, but thought the award was worth a conversation, and he's right. Hence this post. But whatever you want to call it, as good as Burke has been — and he has been very good — it's very difficult to mount a comparative argument against Zeller.
From a strictly numerical perspective, Zeller looks like the easy pick. He averaged 15.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, with 1.2 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals thrown in for good measure. What's more, he got his numbers in incredibly efficient fashion. Zeller's offensive rating of 127.9 was ninth-best in the nation and tops in the Big Ten, as tracked by Ken Pomeroy, and his 63.4 effective field goal percentage and 67.2 true shooting percentage ranked No. 17 and No. 8 in the country, respectively. Zeller's scoring was complemented by an all-court game, one that included active hands and defensive solidity (and blocks and steals and so forth) along Indiana's back line. He was really good.
Burke's averages were likewise good: 14.6 points, 4.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds, with just under a steal per game. But Burke was less efficient than Zeller: He got his one fewer point on three more field goal attempts per game, for example, and he committed 2.6 turnovers per outing, a full turnover more than Zeller (which makes sense, because Burke has the ball in his hands a lot more often, obviously). Looking at efficiency stats, though, Burke's offensive rating in 2012 was 105.1, with an eFG% of 49.9. The only area in which Burke was obviously more efficient than Zeller was his 29.4 assist rate. But that number is slightly offset by a turnover percentage of 18.2. (Again, being a point guard means you're going to turn the ball over far more often than a big man, so this isn't an exact comparison. But Burke wasn't exactly Jordan Taylor when it comes to protecting possession, either.)
Of course, not even the most die-hard tempo-free enthusiast would argue that individual statistics can tell the entire story of a player's season, or his overall value to his team, coach, fans and program. This is where Burke's argument gets a bit stronger. The Columbus native arrived as a fringe top-100 recruit, was thrust into John Beilein's starting rotation immediately and excelled just as quickly. He replaced a departed NBA draft pick in Darius Morris, one of 2011's best assist men, and not only did the Wolverines not miss a beat, they improved — and even, thanks in part to William Buford's last second heroics in East Lansing Sunday, won their first share of a Big Ten title since 1986. There is no position more important to Beilein's five-out motion offense than point guard, and Burke's excellence in the role was a huge reason the Wolverines found themselves celebrating yesterday.
That's a really difficult thing for a freshman to do, and as Wolverines Nation colleague Mike Rothstein tweeted to me and Myron last week, "Tougher to transition to college game as a 6-footer than 7-footer, IMO." He's almost certainly right. Burke's adjustment curve was always going to be higher entering the season, if only because not being a 7-foot-tall future NBA lottery pick is inherently less advantageous than, you know, being one.
But offering that up as a reason to prefer Burke is a little like awarding extra credit for being short. It's not Zeller's fault his parents churn out college basketball centers with Henry Ford-esque efficiency, and it's not his fault he arrived in Bloomington with a ready-made big man's game honed through years playing his brothers in the driveway and getting smacked by his dad's infamous football pads.
From a programmatic or psychological perspective, as impressive as Burke's victorious freshman campaign was, it's hard to argue with Zeller on that front, too. Last season, with pretty much the exact same lineup -- albeit without hugely improved sophomore campaigns from Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey -- Indiana finished 12-20 and 3-15 in the Big Ten. With Zeller in the fold, the Hoosiers went 24-7 overall, 11-7 in conference play, beat Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State, and look likely to land an NCAA tournament seed on the No. 4 line, if not higher. Indiana basketball is "back," its fans say, and they're right. And Zeller's immediate excellence is the biggest reason why. It's why Zeller may land on an All-American list or two this season, and why you can consider him — as Ken Pomeroy's player of the year formula does — one of the nine or 10 best players in the country.
The good news? If Burke loses out on Big Ten FOY, he's still likely to be a first-team All-Conference choice, and he already has the league's most important award — a regular-season title — to console him, too. He's had an excellent season, and he should be recognized for it.
But few players in the country were as efficient, as dominant, or as important to their teams as Zeller. Burke, for as good as he's been, isn't one of them.