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COLUMN

IU's Zeller addresses the big question

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For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Hoosiers open official basketball practice

Saturday, October 13, 2012 - 10:00 am

BLOOMINGTON –- Do you want to know the truth about Cody Zeller, just about everybody's national basketball preseason player of the year favorite?

Do you seek insight on what lies ahead for this Indiana sophomore forward in this potential season to remember?

Official practice is underway (ESPNU televised Friday night's opener) and one question looms above everything else. It's THAT question, the BIG question, the one that will follow Zeller as long as he wears the Hoosier candy stripes.

Are you ready for it?

Can you handle it?

Hold that thought.

Zeller is a 7-foot breath of fresh air in a sport that needs more of it. He boasts a dry wit often delivered with a wink and a smile. Take, for instance, freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell –- he's listed at a very generous 6-foot -- insisting that he has dunked on Zeller.

“I'm not sure he can dunk at all,” Zeller says.

Zeller and the veteran Hoosiers are part of a team mentoring program with the four freshmen to help them acclimate to college life. Zeller and senior guard Jordan Hulls have Ferrell.

“It's tough going from high school to college,” Zeller says. “There's a lot coming at you in the classroom and athletics. We try to keep an eye on them.

“Everyone is excited about the team. A lot of people are coming around trying to jump on the bandwagon. A lot of people want to be your friends. You've got to figure out who would be your friends if you weren't playing basketball.”

That's an astute statement, but then, Zeller is astute and well grounded despite his Hoosier hero status, which is also refreshing in a world full of superstar athletes doing dumb things.

“We all have to have our guard up,” he says.

Zeller just turned 20 and now weighs 240 pounds. He jokes –- via Twitter –- that after watching the first presidential debate, he “needs to run for president,” and that he is now, truly, his listed 7-feet tall, “with my shoes on.” He quips after seeing The Sporting News cover with him hanging on the rim that the publication Photo-shopped muscle onto the picture, although in truth credit goes to his weight lifting dedication and strength coach Je'Ney Jackson's efforts. When Zeller arrived in Bloomington he was about 215 pounds and could bench press 185 pounds 10 times. Now he bench presses 225 pounds 14 times and squats 415.

Zeller does what's expected, then takes it two steps further.

Coach Tom Crean says Zeller was the most fundamentally strong 18-year-old he's ever seen. He adds that Zeller and teammate Will Sheehey are IU's most improved players. That's impressive considering Zeller burst onto the college scene last year to average 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.3 assists and 1.2 blocks, shoot 62.3 percent from the field (good for fourth nationally) and earn All-America honors.

“He has to lead the way in stretching those fundamentals,” Crean says. “If your best players are getting better, everybody else falls in line.”

Crean says he wants to use Zeller in ways to make him, in essence, unstoppable. Teammate Derek Elston already has seen the results.

“He was tough to stop last year,” Elston says, “and now he's added a jump shot and a three-point shot.

“How he plays with people double-teaming and maybe even triple-teaming him will be fun to watch. He's raised his game unbelievably.”

Zeller took zero three-point shots last season, one fewer than shot-of-stone ex-teammate Tom Pritchard, and that will change. First, Zeller was a good three-point shooter while winning Indiana state championships at Washington High School. He's better now.

Second, Crean wants to boost what was already the Big Ten's best offense, and that will mean doing more than putting Zeller down low to do damage there while opening the perimeter for others.

“I've always shot a little bit outside,” Zeller said. “I didn't shoot as much last year. I felt it was better for the team if I shot more inside and let Jordy and the other guys shoot outside more.

“This year I'll shoot more outside because I'll see a lot of double teams in the post. I don't want to be double-teamed the whole game. They'll move me around a little bit to make it tough to double team me.”

Zeller is the cornerstone of a team that returns five starters from a 27-win Sweet 16 squad. Hulls is one of the nation's best three-point and free-throw shooters. Forward Christian Watford nearly left for the pros after a junior season that included his Kentucky beating three-pointer. Guard Victor Oladipo is considered one of the nation's top-100 players, with fellow junior Will Sheehey not far behind. Add one of the nation's top freshman classes and you have a No. 1 preseason national ranking and off-the-chart expectations that these Hoosiers will win the program's sixth national title and first since 1987.

Zeller downplays it.

“The ranking doesn't matter much now. We want to be No. 1 at the end, when it counts.”

What does matter is that the Hoosiers are driven to improve last year's mediocre defense (10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense) and supercharge their high-octane offense.

“We could score last year,” Zeller says. “There's no doubt about that. I don't think we'll have a problem scoring this year. We have depth. We have quick guys like Yogi coming in. We're in good shape. We can play at a fast tempo.

“Defense will be the key on how far we'll go. There are a lot of little things we're trying to fix.”

And so we get to the big question that will surround Zeller all season. He passed on being a NBA lottery pick last spring because he said he wasn't ready to give up being a college student. Will he do so again next spring, or will he leave for pro riches?

“I don't know,” he says. “I'm not too worried about that right now. We'll see what happens. I'm focused on this year.”

That's the right answer. We told you Zeller was astute.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.