BLOOMINGTON — Following the win against Michigan on Saturday, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean had used most of the superlatives he could think up in talking once again about his two star players, sophomore center Cody Zeller and junior guard Victor Oladipo.
He then twisted his face into a pained expression and journalists knew he was about to embark on a “Hey, wait a minute” moment.
Crean looked down at the table in front of him and talked about former coaches and their sayings that made sense. He then looked out at the media.
“The team ... the team ... the team,” he said. “The star of the team is the team.”
It’s something that those who cover Indiana basketball will hear a lot from Crean as the team launches into the second half of its Big Ten season at 7 tonight against Illinois (ESPN2). With the No. 1 ranking back in Bloomington and the lead all to themselves in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers will attract national attention when it comes to figuring out the nation’s top player.
But who stands tallest in Bloomington?
It would seem that the answer would be easy because Zeller is a 7-footer who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which called him “The Big Handsome.”
He was the consensus preseason player of the year.
Oladipo doesn’t even have a nickname (would Victor E. work?), but his terrific play across the board has transformed him from a “best defensive player in the country” candidate to just plain best player.
Crean isn’t about to get drawn into the argument.
“The more they know that they are the products of their teammates, the better we are,” Crean said.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said that understanding, indeed, makes Indiana tough to beat.
“They don’t have one guy who beats you up,” Williams said. “I don’t think there is a selfish bone in those kids’ bodies.”
That being said, Williams knows that Indiana has a couple of special talents.
“Cody Zeller is really a load to handle,” he said. “And Victor is just as athletic as all get-out. He has such a tremendous want-to. ‘I want to get this loose ball. I want to take your ball. I want to get back on defense and block your shot.’”
The two have taken turns crushing the hopes of opponents.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said of Zeller, “It just seemed like he was everywhere.”
Butler coach Brad Stevens told a story about his team’s 88-86 overtime victory against Indiana on Dec. 15.
“We walked out of our locker room at halftime, after our guys had all left. I said to (assistant coach) Matthew Graves that I had never seen a guy that athletic (as Oladipo). The good news was that he was so fast we couldn’t foul him. We couldn’t even get to him.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called Oladipo the “Ray Lewis” of college basketball. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said Zeller “is a better player this year and he has shown that.”
Both players were among the 12 players named by the United States Basketball Writers Association to still be in the running for the Oscar Robertson Trophy that goes to the nation’s best player.
Eventually, though, being on the same team might hurt their chances. Of the 12 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, Zeller is eighth in scoring at 16.3 points a game, and Oladipo is 10th at 14 points a game.
Whether the writers acknowledge all the other things they do the court remains to be seen.
Zeller isn’t worried about individual accolades and statistics. Against Michigan, he was proudest of a play where he dove on the floor late in the game to keep a loose ball alive, a play that helped Indiana gain possession.
“I was just trying to keep it alive and make a play down the stretch,” Zeller said. “I always pride myself on the hustle plays, all the little things that anyone can do.”
Fortunately for Zeller, he already has earned the nation’s attention. The writers are more likely to notice those “little things.”
Oladipo might be facing an uphill battle considering that he was considered a tremendous defensive player a season ago, with holes in his offensive game.
But if coaches keep reacting like Michigan coach John Beilein, it will be hard for the media not to notice Oladipo.
“I’ve seen a lot of players. I don’t know that I have seen one quicker or faster, more athletic than Oladipo,” Beilein said.
The Oscar Robertson Trophy is presented annually to the outstanding men’s college basketball player by the United States Basketball Writers Association. The trophy is considered to be the oldest of its kind and has been given out since 1959. Indiana University standouts Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are two of 12 finalists for the 2013 award.
Player: Cody Zeller
Statistics: 16.3 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game, 30 blocks, 59.6 percent from the field
Player: Victor Oladipo
Statistics: 14 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game, 54 steals, 64.4 percent from the field