Welcome to the impossible world of Cody Zeller.
Sure, it’s hard to feel sorry for a kid who is going to make oodles of money in the near future as an NBA star, who is playing for one of the most prestigious programs in the nation, and who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and crowned the nation’s top college basketball player by several publications.
But watching Indiana’s win against Iowa in the Big Ten opener Monday, I felt the need to come to his defense.
Zeller was being criticized on ESPN2 for not taking over the game.
Yes, he was simply lousy. He had only 19 points and 10 rebounds. Yawn. Another double-double.
He scored 15 of his points in the second half and, as always, was running the court like a point guard, both on offense and defense. He went 7 of 12 from the floor and 5 for 5 from the free-throw line.
What he didn’t do was scream, “Look at me! I’m more important than my teammates, and I have to force something to happen if we are going to win this game.”
He let the game come to him. And it did. It also came to Indiana, which won.
It was pointed out more than five times that Victor Oladipo has been Indiana’s best basketball player this season.
I’m sure Zeller would respond by saying, “Great.”
Personally, I wouldn’t argue that Oladipo has, indeed, been the Hoosiers’ best player. He has been amazing on defense, one of the best I have seen in the 20 years I have covered college basketball.
To explain Oladipo’s excellence as a defender, I would compare him to the offensive play of former Arizona State and NBA player Eddie House. House was perpetual motion, never stopping for a second on the court. Opponents simply couldn’t keep track of him because he worked so hard to get open. He was one-of-a-kind.
Likewise, Oladipo has that nonstop motor you’ve heard so much about but seldom have seen. His energy on both ends of the court is amazing. He is going to have a long NBA career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up being the Big Ten Player of the Year.
It’s no insult to say Oladipo has played better than Zeller. But when it is said over and over, it kind of sounds like Zeller is somehow underachieving.
And that’s ridiculous.
So here’s the deal. If push came to shove, I wouldn’t pick Zeller as the best player in the country. There, I have said it.
I just think he is a terrific player, an awesome college basketball center and a pretty darned nice guy.
If you gave every college basketball coach in the country five choices to fill out a starting lineup. I would bet that Zeller would be on 95 percent of the rosters. He is that good.
The best? Who really cares?
He is the best for Indiana at the position coach Tom Crean asks him to play. He gives the Hoosiers a legitimate chance to go deep into the NCAA Tournament this season.
But he also needs to handle the ball better, be more aggressive going to the boards, understand how to stay in a game early when he has fouls and be more consistent.
Wow, sounds like he needs to stay at Indiana one more season.
Let’s think about that one for a moment. Yup, I apologize. The announcer was right. He needs to stay in college to learn how to take over a game.
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 379-5632.