- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Detroit Lions reporter
It is a situation most coaches would gladly take and most teams would likely want either one of them.
Two Big Ten coaches revealed their votes Monday -- Iowa’s Fran McCaffery voted for Zeller and Illinois’ Bruce Weber for Burke. Most other coaches declined to reveal their ballot but many made the same point.
“How could you go wrong with either one?” said Nebraska coach Doc Sadler, who recruited Burke out of high school. “You pick one, and I’ll pick the other.”
Both players have dramatically improved their teams -- Indiana going from the bottom of the Big Ten last season to a sure-fire NCAA tournament team and an 11-7 record this season. Michigan, meanwhile, recovered from the departure of point guard Darius Morris with Burke and shared in a league title with Michigan State and Ohio State.
Statistically, they are close. Zeller averages 15.4 points a game, Burke 14.6. Zeller grabbed 6.4 rebounds a game, Burke had 4.6 assists a contest. Zeller also led the league in field goal percentage at 63.5 percent.
But Burke had to learn the hardest position in the sport -- point guard -- in an offense notorious for the amount of sets, actions and options within it.
“They are both terrific,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “The point guard makes everyone better, andhe just improved and improved and improved and started taking over games.
“Zeller, from the get-go, has been terrific, shooting about 90 percent, and he passes the heck out of the ball and is so mobile. They are both really good players, not just really good players as freshmen.”
Weber said he went with Burke, in part, because his team won a share of the conference title and the Columbus, Ohio, native was a big part of that. McCaffery went with Zeller because of what he is able to do in a game.
“This guy impacts the game in so many different ways,” McCaffery said. “He can score, block shots, rebound, handle the ball, pass the ball. He never panics. He makes plays where they need them and he’s got as good a feel of how to play a game as anyone and that’s rare when you’re almost 7-feet tall.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean, when asked why Zeller should win the award, pointed to his team’s improved record and how Zeller makes everyone on the Hoosiers better.
And then he looked to the smaller things with Zeller, too.
“It’s unique when someone can play the position he plays and can totally fill a stat sheet, impact the game on both ends of the floor and more than that, can make everybody better,” Crean said. “All you have to do is really look at our record and where it was a year ago, where our conference wins were and overall wins were and he’s the one that has really played the most of anybody that is new in the team.
“I think that impact speaks for itself in how he continues to make us better.”
Burke’s case is somewhat similar. He took over the biggest question mark on an otherwise veteran team, made almost everyone on Michigan better, made the team better and also became the Wolverines’ best player by the end of the season.
And he did it all from a learning position.
“The ball is in my hand 90 percent of the time and it gets tough sometimes, playing the position that I play,” Burke said. “Teams, it gets harder, they get to scout you coming off the ball screens and they know all your tendencies with the ball in your hand. I’m not really on the block.”
But most coaches had the right sentiment. Cody Zeller? Trey Burke?
It is tough to go wrong.
“t’s a great argument,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “You could go back and forth, take that one to court and both attorneys would feel like they were going to win.”
It is a situation most coaches would gladly take and most teams would likely want either one of them.But when it comes down to who should be Big Ten Freshman of the Year, it is a tough call this season.