A closer look at the Big Ten award races

There have been questions for weeks about the merits of certain Indiana players’ and coach Tom Crean’s case for coveted All-Big Ten awards. Dustin turned in his ballot and gave his justifications in an article today. But I’d like to open it up to a little more conversation.

The Freshman of the Year and Coach of the Year races in the Big Ten are both two-man shows. FOY looks like it’ll be either Michigan point guard Trey Burke or Indiana’s Cody Zeller. COY comes down to Tom Crean and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Who would you pick for either award?

Here’s a case for both sides of each debate:

Cody Zeller should be Freshman of the Year…

Because without him, the Hoosiers wouldn’t be even close to the NCAA Tournament. Zeller leads all Big Ten freshmen in scoring (15.5 points per game), rebounding (6.4), steals (40), and blocked shots (38). He’s also second, regardless of class, in field goal percentage (.634). He’s given Indiana’s offense a completely different identity, with the majority of the offense running through the freshman big man.

Zeller runs the floor better than any big man in the country, regardless of size, and his only weaknesses as a big man in a physical conference is that he isn’t exactly an excellent rebounder and he doesn’t block shots like some would like out of their defensive stopper in the middle. But hey, not everyone can be Anthony Davis, right?

His most important justification for this award though is how valuable he’s been to Indiana’s resurgence. He’s been the poster child for Indiana’s return to national relevance, and his ability to create in the post has opened Indiana’s offense up for its shooters to wreak havoc from outside. Without him, there’s no way Indiana’s 3-point game is as efficient as it is today – the Hoosiers are third overall in the NCAA from behind the arc. There’s no doubt that he’s an All-Big Ten (and someday, probably All-American) talent. But is he more deserving than Burke?

Trey Burke should be Freshman of the Year...

Because Burke could very well be considered the best guard in the entire Big Ten. And that’s not an exaggeration. The Michigan point guard is second to Zeller in freshman scoring (14.5 points per game) and leads in assists (4.8), 3-pointers (50), and minutes played (35.9). He’s been the pure floor general that Michigan’s offense hasn’t had in decades and has actually been an upgrade over last year’s Darius Morris or the year before’s Manny Harris.

Burke, more than Zeller, has proven to be as clutch of a freshman as you’ll find in the country, hitting big shots when his team most needed him to and carrying the load on offense when fellow guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has dealt with serious inconsistencies. He sees the floor better than anyone expected he would and that’s created a lot of opportunities for teammates to have breakout offensive performances (i.e. Jordan Morgan’s vastly improved offensive game.

He’s not quite a defensive stopper yet, and considering the players at his position in the Big Ten, Zeller is probably more poised on the defensive end. But Burke is a clutch player through and through. Michigan wouldn’t be nearly as good without him, and he’s also becoming a poster child (albeit less obviously) for the Wolverines’ new age of basketball. But is that effect nearly as profound as Zeller’s?

My vote…

Zeller. Indiana is the most improved BCS team in America for a reason and 75% of that is because of Zeller’s arrival in Bloomington. The race is closer than a lot of people think though; Burke might be one of the most clutch players in the Big Ten already. But Zeller edges him because of his impact on a program that was much worse off before he got there.

Tom Crean should be Coach of the Year…

Because his team is, like I mentioned, the most improved BCS team in the country. Crean reeled in Zeller and got his two younger playmakers, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo, on the right path to becoming serious contributors on both sides of the ball. He focused most of his preseason coaching on defense, which has paid off for the most part this year. And he’s helped lead the Hoosiers to three of the most impressive victories in college basketball this season.

Crean has been criticized before for being a mediocre in-game coach, but he’s shown this season that he can make valuable adjustments and keep his team motivated down the stretch. He made the decision to allow Verdell Jones to take the ball up the court in the last five seconds of the Kentucky game, and that gamble paid huge dividends. He’s made some mistakes in-game when dealing with his team’s momentum (or lack thereof), but the victories speak for themselves. He’s completed one of the more impressive turnarounds in the last decade of college basketball.

Tom Izzo should be Coach of the Year…

Because he’s overachieved with a team that could have easily folded after a tough start. It’s a commonly known that Izzo is one of the best coaches in college basketball, and this season may be one of his better justifications of that high praise. He utilized Draymond Green in the best possible way he could, molding him into one of the better team leaders in all of college basketball. He transformed Keith Appling into a solid Big Ten point guard. And he took post guys like Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, who had massively underachieved in the past, and made them into defensive stalwarts that rebound better than most frontlines in the country and keep teams out of the paint.

The Spartans experienced a bit of a tailspin last season, but Izzo has masterfully crafted this year’s team with a chip on its shoulder. That’s given Michigan State an edge that led the Spartans directly to at least a share of the Big Ten title. Izzo is no stranger to Big Ten titles, but this season, it just felt like he did more with less than he has in the past.

My vote…

Tom Crean. This race is close too, but Crean’s adjustments in the offseason and insistence on changing his team’s bad habits in order to work with Zeller at the forefront of the offense have worked out to near-perfection. He’s gone from a coach on the (undeserved) hot seat to one of the hottest coaches in America. Respect should go to Izzo for being one of the best in the game — and overall, a better coach than Crean. But this year is Crean’s to enjoy.

What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree with my reasoning? Think I’m a moron? Let us know.


  1. Completely agree with your vote. As you have mentioned, no team has undergone a tranformation than the Hoosiers have and the main reason for this is because of two people basicly, Crean and Zeller.

  2. Honestly with the way voting usually goes- I think it is almost like the Oscars- where something will win best actor and not get best picture or vice-versa. (visions of the year that had There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men in my head)

    If we get one or the other I will be happy- but COY is a bigger award to me because it really was a special year beating the 1st, 2nd, 5th ranked teams after the scandal/exile of players, the 3 year drought, loss of Creek etc. (list goes on)

    Crean deserves the award because it’s been a legendary season-one that people will remember as the great turnaround-exceeding EVERYONE’s expectations- I don’t care who you are. It doesn’t matter if we go deep into March or not. Do you think anyone will remember Michigan State’s season unless they go deep? I think not.

    Alright it’s Friday night i’m out.

  3. Of course I’m biased, but I agree with both picks.

    Without Zeller, IU probably wouldn’t even make the NIT again.

    And IU wasn’t picked by most people to make the Dance and he beat 3 Top 5 teams.

  4. Agree with your votes completely. While Burke is really good, Zeller is just as good and it is more unusual for a big man to play so well as a freshman. Crean has done a tremendous job this year. The balancing act he’s done to motivate and inspire players who know all-to-well how to lose is a serious work of art, imo. Yes, we’re the most improved BCS team in the country but that’s not the only thing Crean turned around. His players are good citizens who go to class, get good grades and graduate. He and this team have restored pride and that makes him COY, imo.

  5. Ryan – regardless of your votes this is my favorite piece you’ve written. I love the ability to objectively present both sides of the story without really feeling your UM slant. I agree with all of your conclusions and points, and certainly your votes.

    The last sentence is pure gold! I think you are finally part of the Scoop family!

  6. Ryan — I know I am biased too — but I agree with your votes. What Crean has been able to do in his tenure is deserving of this recognition — he not only rebuilt a team, but re-energized an entire program and fan base across the country. He has brought back Hooiser pride — and with a great group of players who proudly wear the jersey and represent the program and the school.

    As for Cody — yep — he deserves it to — the “big guy” has superceded expectations and was a critical need for the team — he has been incredible — and shown improvement all season long (and his numbers are worthy of the designation as well).

  7. Hulls and Zeller.

    Crean is a great recruiter. I want to see him recruit for Rice.

  8. ^ I take it back. I wanna see him recruit for the Washington Huskies. Crean would be a perfect fit there. Same goes for Wilson.

  9. The one thing that comes to mind is the coach that made the most of the talent at hand at the time. when IU went 14-0; I didn’t think some of the players were as good as they were being credited for; and they did crash/burn in January. But the coach did “coach” the players on the running game, the defensive game, and especially the passing game. It was and is very evident. The team has a totally new face and energy that crushed Michigan State. that is what makes the Coach Crean, the COY. end of discussion.
    As to the FOY, it will come down to the last stats; could be a clean crean sweep, but I do not believe in fairy tales. But I would love to be pleasantly surprised!

  10. When we went 14=0 we were a 3 point shooting circus on wheels. Now the three is just a compliment because the competition adjusted. Great coaching. He makes great use of what we’ve got and what the opposition gives us.

    BTW, where are the guys that were saying CTC is the worst coach in the league a few weeks ago? I’m sure they will man up and admit they are wrong. If they didn’t then it would prove they are spineless weasels and they wouldn’t want that.

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