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March 8, 2012
The Zeller Effect has Indiana soaring
Christian Watford just wasn't sure.
He'd heard plenty about Cody Zeller, this ballyhooed recruit. He knew the kid was coming from Indiana high school basketball royalty, the only family to produce three brothers to win Mr. Basketball.
But could he be a big time college basketball player right away? Could the kid actually jump into the starting lineup and instantly help a 20-game loser become a 20-game winner?
"I didn't really expect a freshman to come in and do what he did or take on the role he did, but he did it. He exceeded my expectations," the Indiana junior forward said. "During games, you just sit back and watch and you're like, 'Wow.' It's hard to tell when you're running up and down playing open gym, but once you get inside these lines, things get different.
"He can play basketball."
The only addition from last year in terms of significant playing time, Zeller has made the Hoosiers one of the most effective offenses in the country, a key to their return to being a major factor on the national landscape.
Zeller gives Indiana a 6-foot-11 low post presence who can score, but that's just the start. He passes at such a high level, IU gets him the ball at times to allow players to cut and move around him, letting the offense essentially rotate around him.
"He's a heck of a passer," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "He sees things. He's got a real poise. He's a competitor but there's calmness about the way he plays. He makes all those guys better the way a passing center can.
"He scores also, but he's not one of those guys that's a center and it's like four guys trying to help one guy score. He's one guy and he's helping four other guys score."
That's the essence of Zeller.
That's the Zeller effect.
He's helping four other guys on the court score.
That's the way IU coach Tom Crean envisioned it. The Hoosiers don't simply play to Cody Zeller, they play through Cody Zeller.
"I just think it's the threat of having him in there," said Purdue coach Matt Painter, whose team beat IU twice last year but lost to them twice this year, both times by double figures. "You've always got to worry about him whether he's posting strong or running in transition or playing in the half court."
Zeller's presence has made an entire team better.
Indiana entered the Big Ten Tournament ranked 15th in the country with a 24-7 record. This year's team became the first in the storied history of a program with five national titles to beat three top-5 teams in the same regular season, knocking off No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State.
They became the first team since the 1975-76 unbeaten national champions to start the season 12-0.
How'd they do it? The monumental leaps in offensive production are a major reason.
Last year, IU ranked 147th in the country in points per game. This year, seventh.
Last year, IU was 162nd in 3-point percentage. This year, second.
Last year, IU was 171st in free throws made. This year, sixth.
And that's but a sampling of the Hoosiers' offensive improvements.
"He makes it so much easier because we can just throw it in," said Hulls, in his junior season after himself winning Indiana Mr. Basketball as a high school senior. "He's a really good passer out of the post as well. He draws so much attention, if they double team him, he's going to find the open shooter. If they don't he's capable of going and scoring."
To simply point out Zeller's statistical marks is to diminish his impact on this IU this season, but they have been important.
In the regular season, he led IU in scoring (15.4), rebounding (6.4), field goal percentage (63.5), blocked shots (40), minutes played (28.2 per game), free throws made (133) and attempted (177), second chance points (109) and points off turnovers (112) and is second in steals (41) and deflections (234).
His 63.5 percent shooting was fourth in the nation and on pace to break the school single-season record of 62.8 set by Matt Nover in 1992-93.
Like his brother Tyler, a senior at North Carolina, Cody runs the floor like a guard. At times, he's beaten the opposition down the court for a fast-break dunk after a made basket.
The impact of Zeller's mere presence was perhaps most evident in IU's 88-82 victory at Penn State Jan. 8. The Nittany Lions decided to sag in the paint, and Zeller got only five shots, scoring 10 points. But he drew so much attention, Hulls and Roth scored a combined 50 points and the Hoosiers shot 16-for-24 from 3-point range.
"He's there to make plays," said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. "He's a good foul shooter. He's a very good athlete. I don't think anybody talks about his athleticism.
"He can catch it on the perimeter and drive the ball and finish under control like a forward can. He just opens up a lot of things for that offense. Coach Crean does a great job of positioning him, knowing when to go to him and when not to. He's not a freshman. He plays like a junior or senior."
In Thursday's Big Ten Tounrament win over Chambers and Penn State, Zeller scored 19 points on 4-of-9 shooting while going 11-for-15 from the line. He also pulled down 10 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass.
IU is on pace to have four players - Zeller, Watford at 11.8, Oladipo at 11.2 and Hulls at 11.1 - average in double figures for the first time since the 1993-94 season.
Roth's 59.2 percent shooting from 3-point range in Big Ten play set a school record, breaking the 57.1 percent by Jay Edwards in 1988.
Sitting on a stack of red foam pads in Cook Hall after practice Wednesday, Zeller said he's just playing his role.
"A lot of it depends on the other team, how we're planning on attacking them, whether I have a mismatch inside or they have a big guy and I'm more of a passer, whether they collapse on the middle like a lot of teams do," he said. "I try to do whatever the other team gives me.
"I think when everyone's clicking we're fun to watch because we're getting in the lane, getting to the free throw line, kicking it out to our 3-point shooters. When everyone's playing well, we're tough to beat."
Named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by league coaches, Zeller has been recognized nationally. He was named to the Sporting News All-Freshman Team, he's one of five finalists for the Tisdale Award (given to the nation's top freshman), he was on the Midseason Watch List for the Wooden Award and is one of three freshman up for the Oscar Robertson Trophy.
"I think we could look at any aspect of our game and see where there's been a factor where Cody has had his presence felt," Crean said. "The bottom line is, our team just keeps getting better and Cody is no different than anybody else. He just keeps improving.
"He's a two-way player, there's no doubt about that. He's an early-in-the-game player. He's a late-in-the-game player. He's a middle-of-the-game player. You can do a lot of different things with him."
Passing, poise and presence. Zeller has them all. And they've changed Indiana this season.
It's not like just adding a great shooter, who can get a team points but not much else. It's not like a traditional center, who sets up in the post and waits for an offense to get him the ball.
Zeller can create for himself and he can create for any of the other four players on the court.
He's helping four other guys on the court score.
"For someone his size to be able to move like a guard and deflect like a guard and rebound like he does and be active like he is opens it up for everyone," Oladipo said. "It opens it up for the shooters. It opens it up for the slashers. It opens it up for the dribble penetration and kick outs. And if his man helps too much, you can just drop it off.
"He's really shown why he's a big part of us winning this year."