COLUMBUS, Ohio – After a brief but damaging estrangement, it took the Indiana Hoosiers 55 seconds to reacquaint themselves with All-American center Cody Zeller on Sunday.
At the 19:05 mark of the first half against Ohio State, Zeller got the ball in the post. He turned and hit a jump shot.
Cody Zeller wanted the ball. Cody Zeller got the ball. Cody Zeller posted up with vigor, drove with authority and shot with confidence. Cody Zeller played like the preseason National Player of the Year is supposed to play.Thus a precedent was established.
He took 11 shots from the field and 11 from the foul line and scored 24 points. The last time he scored more than that was Jan. 29, 2012.
Not coincidentally, Indiana won a big road game over the No. 10 Buckeyes, 81-73. It sure beat the result last Thursday, when Zeller went missing and the Hoosiers blew a game, the No. 1 ranking and the undisputed Big Ten lead at Illinois.
In the bounce-back game Sunday, Indiana had 66 offensive possessions in its first road victory over a top-10 team in 13 years. On 28 of those possessions (42 percent), the ball passed through Zeller's hands at least once.
That is as it should be. That is how it must be for the Hoosiers to be as good as they can be. And by that, I mean a Final Four team and possible national champions.
"We need him to be involved every game," said Indiana guard Victor Oladipo. "We've got to throw it into him. We've got to establish him."
Oladipo is establishing himself as a National Player of the Year candidate in his own right – his 26 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals Sunday only added to the junior's growing body of brilliant work.
But as good as Tonto has become, the Hoosiers must understand that the Lone Ranger in the middle is still the team's most important offensive option. And Zeller must embrace that reality.
"I think he passes up too many shots," said Will Perdue, a 13-year NBA veteran and former SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt who was in Columbus as a radio analyst. "He's not aggressive enough about how he calls for the ball. He's not aggressive enough about how he holds his space."
Despite that mini-critique, Perdue is a big Zeller admirer. He marveled at the way the 7-footer runs the floor and at his skill level. Like just about everyone else, Perdue is sold on Zeller's pro potential.
But before shaking hands with David Stern, the sophomore could use some assertiveness training. And his teammates need to remember how good he is.
They forgot last Thursday at Illinois, and Zeller did little to remind them. He took all of six shots – none in the final five minutes – as the Hoosiers frittered away a late lead and were stunned by the Illini. He did not shoot a single free throw in the second half.
Seven other times this season, Zeller has attempted seven or fewer shots in a game. The only time that should happen is in a blowout when he's spending most of the second half on the bench. And those easy victories are gone for this season in the brass-knuckles Big Ten.
The deferential, laid-back big man needs to get in touch with his inner Kobe. There needs to be a little more arrogance to Zeller's game.
"He's got to think more that way, because he really is that good," said his coach, Tom Crean. "He's such a great teammate, he wants his teammates to have the ball and get buckets."
From a macro viewpoint, being an unselfish star has worked out pretty well for Zeller. As Crean pointed out, the Hoosiers won 27 games last year with him as a freshman and have won 21 so far this year.
And Zeller is surrounded by talented teammates, especially at the offensive end. Becoming a black hole would not help the Hoosiers win games.
But there is vast middle ground between doing too much and doing too little. By nature, Zeller is far more inclined to do too little. The days of Zeller being fifth on the team in field-goal attempts, as he was at Illinois, must be in the past for Indiana.
The Hoosiers are such a lethal shooting team that at times they can fall in love with the jump shot. Sunday, the game plan was to pound inside with Zeller and Christian Watford (who had 20 points himself).
"We really needed to get the ball into the paint," Crean said. "We did the best job of the whole Big Ten [season] getting the ball into the paint."
The Indiana coach is protective of Zeller, who has carried stratospheric expectations since he committed to the Hoosiers and gave Crean the program savior he needed. While the outside world demands dominance, the coach is simply asking for consistent improvement.
"Dwyane Wade, when we had him [at Marquette], he wasn't getting the Sports Illustrated covers at the beginning of the year," Crean said. "The expectation level for him is going to be different. We told him, 'You can't ever buy into what the outsider's expectation level should be.' The biggest thing for him is his improvement level.
"That guy is young, OK? YOUNG. I say that with capital letters."
That's the truth. But it's also true that youth is no longer a satisfactory excuse in college basketball. Almost all the most talented players are young, and they're given precious little time to grow into men before running off to the NBA.
Fair or not, Cody Zeller must occasionally play like two things he is not: an arrogant, ball-demanding adult. It may not come naturally, but it must come consistently, the way it did Sunday in Columbus.
There is no time left for estrangements between the Hoosiers and their star center. Not if they want to win at the level they aspire to.
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