Sunday, February 3, 2013

Indiana's Zeller Won't Sleep on Hoosier Job

Cody Zeller is a funny guy.

Let’s qualify that.

He isn’t funny like Rodney Dangerfield was funny in his “I get no respect” ways. He lacks Richard Pryor’s intense language or Robin Williams’ zaniness. And he certainly doesn't come close to the "funny guy" Joe Pesci implications in the movie "Good Fellas."

Still, you get the picture.

Zeller's humor is in more of the subtle, laid-back style. Take, for instance, his thoughts on the advantage of playing late games, of which Indiana seems to get more than its share.

“We get more time to nap,” he said.

Yes, when you're an elite basketball player juggling a demanding academic schedule (the guy is set to graduate in 2 1/2 years), sleep is a big deal.

Anyway, IU has had a couple of late starting times this season, which is a direct result of its national popularity. There was the 10 p.m. tipoff against Georgetown, the 9:30 tipoff against North Carolina and the 9 p.m. tipoffs against Wisconsin and Michigan.

You might think Zeller wouldn’t like waiting all day to play, but that’s not how he thinks.

“I wish every game would be at 9,” he said. “Then I could nap a couple of hours.”

Zeller is more than just a 7-foot nap waiting to happen, of course. He has regained the dominant form that once made him a favorite to win national player of the year honors, and if that standing has slipped slightly, it doesn’t mean he’s any less effective. A strong finish could earn him that honor, and a lot more.

In the last two games Zeller has averaged 19 points and 10.5 rebounds. He had a couple of monster dunks in Sunday’s win over No. 1 Michigan. Even when he doesn’t score to his 16.3-point average, he distorts defenses, creates openings for his teammates and plays solid defense.

Take those Michigan dunks, for instance.

“They were huge,” teammate Victor Oladipo said. “That’s what he does. He makes big plays at big times. That’s why he’s the big fella. He made those big plays because we needed them.”

Take his long crunch-time rebound, when he out-hustled a pair of Wolverines to get the ball and restart the offense that led to a pair of crucial Yogi Ferrell free throws in what became an 81-73 victory.

“I was trying to keep the ball alive and make a play down the stretch,” Zeller said. “I always pride myself on hustle plays -- plays that anyone can do.”

Except, of course, that most people don’t do them, especially big guys.

“Cody's loose ball rebound late on our end offensively was unbelievable,” coach Tom Crean said. “He'll have some SportsCenter dunks, but that loose ball rebound was just…that's why he's such a special player.”

Crean has known that for a long time, which is why, years ago, he made recruiting Zeller a priority. That paid off with a Sweet 16 berth last year. This year a lot more is expected, and in so many ways, Zeller and the Hoosiers are delivering. They are 20-2 overall, 8-1 in the Big Ten. They are poised to return to the No. 1 ranking.

Zeller is, of course, a big part of that, but he’s still just a key contributor on a roster that includes Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, and more.

I think the more that guys like Cody and Victor and Christian and Jordan …know that they are the product of their teammates…and they've all got their roles and they all do different things, but they are the product of…their success is the product of their teammates…the better we are,” Crean said. “That is the way we have got to keep focusing.”

Focus means aggression on defense and movement on offense. It means paying attention to the scouting reports and playing with passion and commitment and, yes, having fun.

It almost certainly will produce a No. 1 ranking this afternoon when the polls are released. When the No. 3 team, as Indiana was, beats the No. 1 team, as Michigan was, right after No. 2 Kansas losing to Oklahoma State, well, the outcome seems obvious.

The Hoosiers were No. 1 at the start of the season, but lost it when they lost to Butler during December’s Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis.

They’ve learned from that loss, and from the one to Wisconsin last month at Assembly Hall. Keeping the top ranking won't be easy given that Duke, Louisville and Michigan also couldn't hold onto it, but that's a topic for another day.

“We’ll keep playing like we’ve been playing,” Oladipo said. “We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder. We’ve played with a chip on our shoulder since I got here. We’ll continue to do that. We’ll continue getting better and keep playing for each other and staying together.”

It starts, and certainly doesn’t end, with Zeller.

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