Indiana Basketball: Is Cody Zeller the Nation's Best Player?

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, IN - JANUARY 12:  Cody Zeller #40 of the Indiana Hoosiers grabs a rebound during the Big 10 game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Assembly Hall on January 12, 2013 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In the run-up to the 2012-13 college basketball season, Indiana's Cody Zeller was (almost) everyone's choice for a first-team All-America position, if not national player of the year. Widely considered the messianic recruit who had led the IU program out of probation-induced purgatory, Zeller was expected to add numerous individual awards, not to mention a potential national championship, to his burgeoning legacy.

Now that the season has reached its midpoint, players' resumes are beginning to take shape against the conference opponents who will make or break their teams' postseason hopes. In the nation's toughest league, Zeller's production is indeed bolstering his case as America's top player.

Three reasons why:


1. Leadership on the B1G Stage

Critics will point to IU's loss to Wisconsin for ammunition to use against Zeller. He did struggle to five points on 1-of-7 shooting in the second half, hot on the heels of a flawless 18-point opening 20. Even with Zeller's overpowering performance, the Hoosiers carried only a one-point lead into halftime, pointing to an alarming lack of support.

It's unreasonable to expect any player to sustain perfect shooting, especially when he's the primary focus of a swarming, disciplined defense like Wisconsin's.

Overall, Zeller's 19.2 points per game in conference play is bettered only by Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, who may be the closest thing college basketball has this season to a one-man team. Since the Big Ten season tipped off, however, Zeller can feel a little bit of Thomas' pain.

Outside of Zeller and Victor Oladipo, the rest of the IU roster is shooting a frigid 35.5 percent against Big Ten foes. Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey are both 50-percent shooters on the season, but in conference, they sit at 35 and 31 percent, respectively.

On a per-40-minute basis, Zeller has only fractionally stepped back from his production against IU's cupcake-laden non-league schedule. His 11 rebounds/40 and 3.2 steals/40 have dropped to 10.5 and 2.4, still strong figures.

Zeller's points/40 have actually risen from 22.8 to 22.9 in league games. In case you're wondering, Deshaun Thomas scores 23.7 per 40 against the league while taking nearly one third of Ohio State's shots.

IU has enough balance that Zeller will rarely take that large a portion of the shots, but if he's not getting some help, the fanbase may clamor for him to be a bit more selfish.


2. Consistency

From a player's freshman season to his sophomore campaign, it's expected that he make some improvements. Those improvements should show in his stats, particularly his efficiencies.

A second season, though, also gives time for opposing coaches to plan for stopping the player. If there's a group of coaches anywhere who can devise suffocating defensive plans, that group is in the Big Ten.

All of this makes Cody Zeller fairly remarkable in his stability from last season to this one.

Zeller's raw field-goal shooting, effective FG percentage and true shooting percentage are all nearly identical to last season's figures. His free-throw percentage is down slightly, but he improved markedly in conference play as a freshman and has echoed that improvement so far this year.


3. Versatility

We haven't gotten the ballyhooed "Cody Zeller, three-point shooter" expansion to his game that we were promised in the preseason, but Zeller's game outside the lane is the envy of most other seven-footers in college basketball.

He routinely victimizes lead-footed big men on drives from the high post, and was doing it to Wisconsin in that superb first half. See below (h/t to B/R contributor C.J. Moore):


Unfortunately for Zeller, in the Wisconsin game, he was facing Jared Berggren, probably the only other center in the Big Ten who's as dangerous facing the basket. On multiple possessions, Berggren burned Zeller right back, including the now-viral thunder dunk over Oladipo.

While Zeller may be limited in terms of power moves inside the paint, no one's plunking down hard-earned cash to watch fellow POY contenders Doug McDermott of Creighton or Michigan's Trey Burke post anyone up, either.


Will Zeller win the player of the year trophies expected of him before the season began? Not likely, since there's a slight disconnect between the overall performance of the whole Hoosier team and the exuberant preseason expectations. Zeller's individual credentials will take the backlash if the Hoosiers underachieve in conference play.

Zeller himself hasn't done this article's premise any favors with a desultory two-point performance against Penn State this evening, so feel free to tee off on that. Still, it's Penn State and the game reached blowout status quickly. Interpret that as you see fit.

For a full body of work, though, no player in America melds size and skill as well as the IU sophomore.


For more from Scott on college basketball nationwide, check out The Back Iron (now on CollegeBasketballTalk's #NBCMustFollow College Hoop Directory).