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Big Ten freshman of the year: Cody Zeller or Trey Burke?

It's been clear since early in the season that the Big Ten, ranked as the nation's top conference by all of the prominent computer ranking systems, also is the home to two of the nation's finest freshmen: Indiana's Cody Zeller and Michigan's Trey Burke. While their size, circumstances, recruiting rankings, and skill sets are quite different, both Zeller and Burke have stepped into challenging positions and have been instrumental in the success of their respective teams. Including co-winners, there have been 18 Big Ten Freshman of the Year awards distributed this year. Zeller has six, Burke has six, and all the other freshmen in the league have combined for a total of six.

For Michigan, which qualified for the 2011 NCAA Tournament and nearly defeated Duke in the round of 32, expectations were reasonably high, but it was not clear how the Wolverines would recover from the early departure of star guard Darius Morris, who entered the NBA draft after his sophomore season. It's safe to say that few expected Burke, a three star recruit ranked #142 by Rivals, would lead to a seamless transition. For IU, it was expected that an elite talent like Zeller, a five star recruit who chose IU (at its nadir) over North Carolina and Butler, would help the Hoosiers, but not at all clear whether one freshman could propel a program that had suffered three straight seasons with twenty or more losses into the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, both guys have made a huge difference. Michigan is even better than last year, and was in the Big Ten title hunt until a surprising home loss to Purdue last weekend. IU, which other than Zeller has essentially the same rotation as last year, stands at 22-7 and 9-7 in the Big Ten, and is an NCAA lock in February after three straight seasons in which the NIT was a pipe dream.
So, they're both good, and they both have made a difference. With a week to go, who deserves the award?

I try to act as a straight shooter around here. I don't deny my obvious bias, although I try to overcome it, and appreciate any feedback from those who think I am blinded by my status as a Hoosier. All that said, Cody Zeller should win Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and it isn't particularly close.

First, when comparing the raw numbers of players who are at other ends of the size and positionspectrum, obviously some numbers are not going to be much of a comparison point. For instance, it's no surprise that Zeller, who is a full foot taller than Burke, has a significant advantage in rebounds: 6.5 to 3.5. Frankly, Zeller's rebounding numbers are among his least impressive numbers. On the other end, it's not surprising that a point guard such as Burke has 4.8 assists per game compared to Zeller's 1.2, and it's certainly no knock on Burke that he has 2.7 turnovers compared to 1.6 for Zeller. As with the rebounds, if anything, one would think that Zeller's number should be a bit better for someone who isn't a ballhandler. On the other hand, Zeller has a big advantage in one number that should be in Burke's wheelhouse: Zeller averages 1.3 steals per game compared to only .9 for Burke.

Of course, the traditional metric that will be most scrutinized by the media and coaches who vote on these things is points per game. In this department, Zeller holds a slight advantage over Burke, averaging 15.4 points to Burke's 14.2 A deeper look at traditional metrics further tilts the balance in Zeller's favor. Zeller bests Burke in scoring average even though Cody a) averages three fewer field goal attempts per game (Zeller takes 8.7 shots per game, Burke 11.9); and b) hasn't attempted, let alone made, a three point shot all season, while Burke takes nearly 40 percent of his shots from deep. Zeller outscores Burke in fewer field goal attempts for a couple of reasons: first, Zeller's field goal percentage is outstanding. He is shooting 63.6 percent from the field. In Big Ten play, his overall percentage has taken a slight dip, but not much (61.6 percent). Overall, Zeller ranks #14 in the nation in field goal percentage. Second, Zeller gets to the line and performs very well there. He shoots nearly 6 free throws per game and makes 76 percent of them. How are Burke's shooting percentages? They are good, especially for a freshman, and especially for a freshman who also is his team's primary ball handler. Burke shoots 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc, and his numbers are essentially identical overall and in Big Ten play. He shoots 72 percent from the line, which is fine, but doesn't stand out for a guard, and certainly doesn't stand out the way Zeller's 76 percent figure does for a seven footer. In short, Zeller scores more points than Burke and is much more efficient about getting them.

How about a look at some non-traditional metrics? Cody Zeller uses 23.6 of IU's offensive possessions, and among that cohort, ranks #6 in Ken Pomeroy's offensive rating. Trey Burke uses 26 percent of Michigan's possessions and has an O-rating of 104.1, which is fine, but not good enough for a national ranking. Burke's only top 100 national ranking is in fouls committed. Zeller, on the other hand, ranks #14 in effective field goal percentage (a stat that usually favors three point shooters), #8 in "true shooting percentage" (essentially John Gasaway's old "points per weighted shot" number, which gives credit for converting free throws), #70 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and #55 in free throw rate (a hybrid of percentage and opportunity). Pomeroy has introduced, for this season, a KenPom player of the year award, based on a combination of all of his ratings. Zeller currently sits ninth on this list, and Kentucky's Anthony Davis is the only freshman who is higher on the list.

None of this should be considered an attempt to diminish or denigrate Burke's accomplishments. It's very impressive for any freshman to have played the sort of role he has played on a team that is in the upper third of the best conference in the nation. His shooting percentages aren't overwhelming, but that he has been able to do that well while adjusting to college basketball and acting as his team's primary ball handler is very impressive and a sign of great things to come. But that gets to the difference between Zeller and Burke. Burke's numbers are very good for a freshman. Zeller's numbers are just very, very good.

Finally, Burke has been instrumental in Michigan's ability to moderately improve upon last year's performance. Zeller is the proximate cause of IU's transformation from being one of the worst major conference teams in the nation to one of the best. What Burke has done has been impressive. What Zeller did has exceeded even the rosiest expectations. Before the season, Peegs hosted a poll in which fans were to predict IU's win total. The consensus, by far, was 18. IU now stands at 22 wins with two home games and a first round Big Ten Tournament game awaiting. Even those who were highly optimistic about Zeller couldn't have predicted how effective and efficient he would be or the positive impact he would have on those around him.

As I said, I know I am biased, and I welcome all reasonable and unreasonable criticism. But the Big Ten Freshman of the Year is Cody Zeller, and it isn't particularly close.