The hype began even before Cody Zeller’s senior year of high school.
On his visits to Assembly Hall, the Indiana fans made it clear: they wanted him to come save the program.
To call Zeller the savior of Indiana University basketball discredits the work his teammates and coaches put in to overcome three tumultuous losing seasons.
But there’s no denying Zeller’s instant impact.
To Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, the skill set Cody Zeller exhibited set him apart.
“As terrific as I think [Michigan’s] Trey Burke is, I’ve seen very few freshmen my entire career with the skill set of Cody Zeller,” McCaffery said during Monday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “He’s got such an intellect at playing the game. That’s rare for a 7-foot guy.
“To be totally honest, Cody Zeller could be a first-team All-American.”
Those accolades will be announced later this month. On Monday night, Zeller was named as the coaches’ pick as Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The media selected Burke.
While not a unanimous choice for the individual newcomer award, there’s no denying the impact Zeller had as a freshman on the 15th-ranked Hoosiers.
Zeller leads IU in scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
“If you look at what Indiana had done the last few years, probably the biggest thing they were missing was a low post presence,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
But it’s more than just individual statistics.
Zeller’s presence has turned Indiana from one of the Big Ten’s poorer shooting teams into the conference’s best in field-goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage.
“That shows the kind of impact he has,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “It’s a lot of players that have gotten better, but Cody has made everyone better.
“It’s unique for someone that plays his position that can fill the stat sheet on both ends of the floor but can also make everybody better.”
But it’s more than just team statistics.
Indiana’s 12-game improvement from last season is the best in school history, carrying the 15th-ranked Hoosiers from last in the Big Ten to fifth-place this season.
But it’s more than just wins.
“Sometimes, potential can be a curse, but not with what that kid has been around,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “He’s been a huge plus for their program. He’s a heck of a player.”
In typical fashion, Zeller took a matter-of-fact attitude to the high expectations that greeted him as a freshman and to the accolades he has garnered. And he quickly deflected credit to his teammates.
“I didn’t worry too much about the pressure,” Zeller told a Big Ten Newtork audience following the conference’s televised awards announcements Monday evening. “I just came every day and tried to work hard. I get a lot of the credit, but guys like Christian Watford and Verdell Jones grew so much over the summer that I don’t deserve all of the credit.”
In November, Crean landed the biggest recruiting class of his Indiana reign — “The Movement,” as they dubbed themselves, five players poised to restore Hoosier tradition.
But Zeller, whose choice to play at Indiana a year earlier helped bring “The Movement” along, beat them to it.
A 12-0 start … three wins over top-5 opponents … over 1,000 more fans at home per game. And almost certainly an NCAA Tournament berth — a new experience not just for Zeller, but his teammates.
First, though, is trying to win a game in the conference tournament for the first time since March 2006, when Zeller was a seventh-grader and his oldest brother, Luke, was a freshman at Notre Dame.
The Hoosiers have never won the Big Ten Tournament and have reached the tourney title game just once, in 2001.
Can Zeller be the same kind of difference-maker in the postseason as he was during the regular season?
Purdue coach Matt Painter thinks so. “He can be unbelievably dangerous down the stretch if they get him 14 or 15 shots per game, because I don’t think there are many people that can stop him,” Painter said.
The hype began even before Cody Zeller’s senior year of high school.
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