The worst-kept secret in college basketball this season was how to beat Indiana and slow Cody Zeller. The two went together like Jim Boeheim and a zone defense.
It was Boeheim's zone that would end the Hoosiers' renaissance season, 61-50, on Thursday night in Washington, D.C. Only Indiana's destiny was decided months before Thursday night's Sweet 16 matchup.
When the Hoosiers and Zeller got to run and play their way this year, they were a joy to watch.
They were unbeatable. No team scored like the Hoosiers when they were clicking. No player got his point easier when the machine was rolling.
Much like Wisconsin and Minnesota did to Zeller, Syracuse threw length at Big Handsome and made him look Big Average.
The Orange made all the Hoosiers look average by taking away all of their easy looks. In fact, they looked like a team that had never seen a zone defense before.
Zeller, IU's star and the consensus preseason player of the year, did not get his first shot until 12:26 into the game. He made it. But it was one of the last good looks he would get.
Zeller shot another 10 times. Two more went in. Five were sent back by the long arms of the Orange. And really, it wasn't all Zeller's fault.
Indiana coach Tom Crean knows—or, at least, he should know—of his big man's limitations.
All season, asking Zeller to score over defenses has not been the most effective strategy. Sometimes he succeeds. But Zeller has been at his best when he's either beating the other team back by running to the rim or when he attacks facing up and uses his quickness to get past other bigs.
Most games, the Hoosiers did a good job of creating those opportunities in transition or creating angles for Zeller to attack. Syracuse's zone, much like Wisconsin's half-court defense, took those angles away.
So, too, did Indiana's inability to hit outside shots, put together multiple successful passes or probe the zone without turning the ball over. The Hoosiers gave it away 18 times, and the third-best three-point shooting team in college basketball made only 3-of-15 threes.
That put Zeller in a bad spot, and he could not bail his team out.
Zeller has helped bail out the Indiana program. The Hoosiers won 12 games the season before he arrived on campus. They've won 56 since and were a No. 1 seed for the first time in 20 years.
If the sophomore big leaves for the NBA, he should be credited with putting the turnaround in Bloomington in motion.
And if Zeller decides to come back, the Hoosiers should once again be considered preseason title favorites, and Zeller should once again be considered a preseason player of the year candidate. He could benefit from another year of strength and conditioning and crafting his back-to-the-basket game.
Maybe then Cody Zeller will become so dominant that a defense like Boeheim's will not be able to render him ineffectual.
But that wasn't the case this year.
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