At this time last season, it's safe to say that most of us had a better idea what to expect from Cody Zeller than from the team in general. The team was a huge question mark. Most of us were hoping to be on the right side of the bubble, but were afraid to hope for much more. Zeller was by far the best pure big man talent IU had recruited in years, he would be well-prepared, thanks two a good family and two older brothers who played major college basketball. Yet, around here and in other quarters, we were trying to temper expectations rather than increase them. Here's what AJ said in his preseason profile last year:
The biggest thing Zeller will bring to this team this season is an offensive presence down low. He doesn’t even have to score a lot for this team to be successful. He just has to be a big enough threat on the offensive side of the ball that teams will have to put more focus on the Hoosiers front court. That is what has been missing for the last couple years. Just by being, Zeller will improve this team exponentially. I would expect about 8 points out of him a game to go with 6-7 rebounds a game. Anything more than that is icing on the cake. However, because of his presence the outside shooting of the Hoosiers is going to improve greatly.
I was perhaps hoping for a bit more from Cody than AJ was, maybe 12 points/6 rebounds per game, but agreed it wasn't realistic to pin all of IU's hopes on a freshman. Obviously, there was plenty of icing to go around. Zeller scored 15.6 points per game, shot 62.6 percent from the field, shot 75 percent from the line on 6 attempts per game, and had 6.6 rebounds per game, along with 1.2 blocks. He even held his own in statistics that usually aren't the province of big men, averaging 1.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game. From his very first game, when he was punched in the junk by a goon from Stony Brook, it became obvious that Zeller would be the target of opposing defenders, but he handled it wonderfully. Zeller fouled out of only one game all season (IU's home win against Ohio State), failed to reach double figures in scoring only four times (all because of relatively rare foul trouble), and fell below 50 percent from the field in only 7 of IU's 36 games. He was below 40 percent only twice, and had only one really rough game, the loss at Wisconsin, where he was only 2-7 from the field and was in constant foul trouble. His non-traditional stats were excellent as well. He was #9 in Pomeroy's player of the year formula, #14 nationally in "true shooting percentage" at 66.5 (multiply by two for John Gasaway's old "points per weighted shot"), which takes free throws into account. He ranked #14 in Pomeroy's offensive rating. Beyond the stats, of course, he was to even the untrained eye a transcendent talent. His skill around the basket, his quick hands, and his ballhandling ability were like nothing I've ever seen from an IU player of that size, although I'm sure those who can remember back to Kent Benson might interject here. Not only is he a fantastic college player, but Zeller seems to have an excellent chance at becoming IU's first NBA All-Star since Isiah Thomas (if Eric Gordon doesn't get there first).
The scary thing, however, is that Zeller doesn't appear to be anywhere near his ceiling. If there was any knock on Zeller last year, it's that he wasn't as assertive on the boards as his size and skill would suggest he should be. Presumably that will change with experience and added strength. In addition, there were times that Zeller disappeared from the IU offense. That's not always a big man's fault, of course. Still, with the addition of pure point guard Yogi Ferrell and perhaps a willingness to be more vocal as a sophmore than as a freshman, there is ample reason to believe that will change as well.
A year ago, I thought that Zeller was the most important recruit in IU's recent history, not necessarily because of what he would do on the court, but because of what his commitment said about the state of IU's program. His commitment meant that despite years of mediocrity or worse, IU remained an attractive program for a five star recruit with an excellent academic record and a family that was experienced with the recruiting game. All of that is as true today as it was a year ago, yet we also know that Zeller is one of the best returning players in the nation. The hype for Zeller seemed to be over the top, yet he actually exceeded it. This season, Zeller is a consensus first-team all-American in the preseason, and is getting some hype for player of the year and/or the first pick in the NBA Draft. If he matches or outpaces expectations again, it should mean a very happy March for IU fans.