As hard as it is for a 7’0’’ stud to fly under the radar, Indiana’s Cody Zeller was doing quite well before a standout performance against then-No. 1 Michigan elevated him back into the National Player of the Year race. He’s not the front-runner yet, but he will be by season's end.
Pegged as the AP’s Preseason Player of the Year, Zeller hovered near the top of most rankings throughout the season, but two less-than-stellar performances against Michigan State and Penn State have seemingly dislodged him from most top-10 POY lists (CBS, Sports Illustrated). His stock has dropped despite the fact that his points have increased from 15.6 to 16.3 and his rebounds per game are up from 6.6 to 8.3.
Not to mention, his team recently re-claimed the No. 1 ranking.
As CBS’ Gary Parrish wrote, “The only bad thing about being tabbed the No. 1 team or National Player of the Year in the preseason is that folks start to wonder what’s wrong with you if you ever lose that label for any reason or amount of time.” Parrish surmised, “There’s no reason to ask what’s wrong with [Indiana] or their most heralded player because, best I can tell, both are doing just fine.”
"Fine" would be an understatement after the Hoosiers ran Michigan ragged on Saturday night. Zeller was terrific, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 10 rebounds. He showed off the tantalizing athleticism that has distinguished him from every other big man in the country. He finished left-handed running layups, showed off a silky fadeaway from the right block and had three thunderous put-back dunks (see video) which sparked Assembly Hall into a frenzy.
It was a statement game for Zeller, who firmly reminded pundits that he’s still very much in the Player of the Year race. His biggest competition for the hardware will come from Michigan’s Trey Burke, Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Creighton’s Doug McDermott, but don’t be surprised when Zeller’s second half surge propels him to the honor.
Indiana, Zeller Have Momentum
After Saturday’s disposal of Michigan, the Hoosiers have won five straight by an average of 17 points per game. Zeller has recorded a double-double in four of his last six games, a feat he’d accomplished just three times earlier this season and the Hoosiers offense is humming at more than 83 points per game. Given that Zeller is the lynchpin of the new No. 1 team in the country, the sophomore will have the glare of the national spotlight on him for the rest of the season, something Creighton’s Doug McDermott will never have playing in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Like the BCS in college football, McDermott will be penalized for Creighton’s lack of competition (the Jays haven’t played a ranked team all season).
One glance at Indiana’s remaining schedule shows it’s back-loaded with difficult road tests against four ranked teams—Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and, in a re-match of the season’s best game to date, Michigan.
Zeller will have the stage, but his candidacy depends on whether he seizes the moment.
The sophomore has been criticized all season for not being aggressive and not demanding the ball—something analysts feel the Preseason National Player of the Year should do inherently. Against Michigan, Zeller reversed the narrative. As SI’s Luke Winn wrote, “He was a near-perfect model of aggressiveness and efficiency.”
Two other national basketball writers, SI's Seth Davis and ESPN's Andy Katz, were moved by Zeller's performance as well.
As good as Michigan’s Trey Burke has been, were Indiana to go on the road and snatch an away victory in the regular season finale, it could sway voters in Zeller’s favor. After all, Zeller clearly won the head-to-head battle in the first matchup as he was much more efficient than Burke, who scored 25 points but took 24 shots to get there.
Zeller's Defensive Impact
Zeller’s raw numbers aren’t difficult to find; he averages 1.4 steals per game (10th in the Big Ten) along with 1.4 blocks per game (fifth), via BigTen.org. But those numbers don't illustrate the type of impact Zeller has had on the Hoosiers’ man-to-man defense.
Indiana’s defensive field goal percentage dropped from 48.1 last season (139th in the country) to 43.1, the 14th most effective defense in the NCAA this year, according to KenPom.com. Yes, some of that mark can be attributed to Victor Oladipo’s stifling perimeter defense, but the reason why Indiana can afford to contest the three-point line is because its players know Zeller is the anchor in the post who'll alter any layup attempts.
Watch at the :23 second mark how Zeller blocks Michigan's Nik Stauskas and it immediately leads to a transition three-pointer for Indiana.
Oftentimes it’s one-and-done in terms of opponents’ shots per possession as Zeller and Oladipo are tenacious on the glass. Overall, the Hoosiers are yielding five points less from last season to this season (66.4 in 2012, 61 this season), according to IUHoosiers.com. Defensive impact is often difficult to quantify, but Zeller’s presence at the heart of Indiana’s defense is undeniable.
Hoosiers Style Complements Zeller
As balanced as Indiana is, Zeller has a hard time standing out amidst three other double-digit scorers, outstanding perimeter shooting and Oladipo’s highlight-reel dunks. This would appear to be a hindrance to his chances as the POY, but Zeller meshes perfectly with Indiana’s transition game and directly benefits from the balanced offense that Indiana has built around him.
In somewhat of a symbiosis, Zeller mandates a double team in the post, thus freeing up his shooters, which have knocked down 42 percent of three-point attempts this season. But after Oladipo, Jordan Hulls or Christian Watford stretch the opponent, Zeller is free to work his man inside the paint.
Keep in mind that Zeller’s numbers from last season are what justified his Preseason Player of the Year nod. And those numbers have gotten better. His team is better and their overall defense is better.
So why shouldn’t Zeller win the National Player of the Year this season?