There are few freshmen on the college basketball landscape that can come into a program and make an immediate impact. There is an even less amount of freshmen that come in and are the most important player for a given team. Cody Zeller, however, is nowhere near an ordinary basketball player. Zeller is clearly the most important player for the Hoosiers, and the team goes as he goes.
The purpose of this article is not to devalue any other members of the Indiana basketball team, but to show how highly valued Cody Zeller truly is.
With that said, I wanted to take a hypothetical look at where this Indiana team would be had Cody Zeller committed to North Carolina or Butler. I understand there is a multitude of factors to a college basketball team, and obviously, none of this is concrete, yet anybody who has watched the Hoosiers knows this year would probably be far different without Zeller.
For starters, on a per-game basis, Cody Zeller averages 15.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, is shooting an astounding 65.6 percent from the floor, and knocks down his free throws 77.9 percent of the time. Also, the Hoosiers are +310 with Zeller on the court, the highest of any player on the Indiana team.
Zeller is clearly the focal point of the offense, which says a lot.Â In the Tom Crean era, Indiana has been a guard-oriented team, but their focus has shifted this season because they have one of the best freshmen in the entire nation. Zeller’s presence is known throughout the nation, and his talents continue to impress not only those in the college ranks but also the pros.
[Related: Tricia Whitaker looks further inside Verdell Jones superb comeback performance]
Indiana’s offensive efficiency has gone from 64th in the nation last season, all the way to 4th this year. While Zellers offensive presence is nice, his 6’11 frame also can give teams problems while the Hoosiers are on defense. Indiana’s defensive efficiency was 109th in the nation last year, and this season they are 70th.
The beauty of Zellers game is that he rarely forces shots up, and he makes his teammates better. While you have to give credit to the rest of the team for improving their skillsets in the off-season, Cody Zeller makes them even better.
Without a dominant post presence, there are not nearly as many open three-point looks for Hulls, Roth, Watford, etc. The Hoosiers are a team that thrives on set three-point looks, and they do not really have somebody that can create their own three-point shot off the dribble and knock it down consistently. That is why Zeller is so important because he draws double-teams and opens up the entire floor. In turn, the Hoosiers are getting great looks and they are capitalizing.
Here is a look at the team’s offensive efficiency ratings from last season and this season, along with effective field goal percentages.
As you can see, Christian Watford is the only player with a lower efficiency rating this season, and it is only by .7 points. Also, multiple guys have much higher effective field goal percentages. While some of these improvements are due to the improvement of the individuals, the efficiency and field goal improvements also strongly correlate with Zeller being the main focus for opposing teams’ defenses.
[Related: Cody Sharrett recaps IU’s win over Northwestern]
Below, I will list Indiana’s schedule, and predict the outcome if Cody Zeller decided not to be a Hoosiers.
Without Cody Zeller, I see no reason the Hoosiers would not have won their first five matchups with Stony Brook, Chattanooga, Evansville, Savannah St., and Gardner Webb, which would put the Hoosiers at 5-0.
Butler would have been an interesting game, especially since Zeller had Butler as one of the schools he had on his final list. If Zeller went to Butler, there is no doubt in my mind the Bulldogs would have dominated the Hoosiers inside. However, I think if Zeller went anywhere else, he would have gone to UNC. Even without Zeller, the Bulldogs still would have had a size advantage with Andrew Smith, and Indiana still struggles to guard good perimeter shooters.Â Even so, this has been a poor year for Butler, so I’ll give Indiana the benefit of the doubt and give them a win. Record: 6-0
[Related: Catch Will Sheehey’s two dunks against Northwestern]
North Carolina State
NC State is a team with a lot of very good bigs. Indiana probably would have struggled in the low-post, which could have opened things up for NC States three-point-threat, Scott Wood. In my opinion, this would have been Hoosier’s first loss. Record: 6-1
Stetson still would have been a win for Indiana. Record: 7-1
I think it is safe to say, without Zeller in the UK game, Anthony Davis and company would have walked all over the Hoosiers. Probably would have been a sizeable loss. Record: 7-2
Notre Dame is a team that struggled early in the season, but their post-player, Jack Cooley, has been consistent the entire year. Since Indiana played away from home, and wouldn’t have been riding the momentum of the UK win, I am going to put this one as a probable loss minus Zeller. Record: 7-3
There is no reason to think Indiana would not have handled either of these teams without Zeller. Record: 9-3
Indiana lost this game anyway, so there is no reason to think they would not have without Zeller. Record: 9-4
The Hoosiers were able to claw their way back into the OSU game because Cody Zeller was able to get Jared Sullinger in foul trouble. Without Zeller, I see the Hoosiers having a hard time keeping this one close. Record: 9-5
Indiana has played Michigan well, regardless of the year, in the Tom Crean era. The guards always seem to show up, so I will keep this one as a win. Record: 10-5
Penn St. is a lousy team, and the Hoosier’s talent would have been superior to the Nittany Lions even without Zeller. Although this game was on the road, I still say Indiana would have won it. Record: 11-5
Minnesota, Ohio State, Nebraska
This was a three-game losing streak for the Hoosiers this season with Cody Zeller. I think without Zeller, it would have been as well. Minnesota has some bigs that gave Zeller some problems, and their talent level would have been about even with the Hoosiers. Ohio State is too good in Columbus, and Nebraska’s bigs gave Cody Zeller fits. Without Zeller, Nebraska probably would have had a hay-day down low. Plus, the game was on the road. Record: 11-8
As it was stated above, even without Zeller, Indiana would have been a better team than Penn State. Record: 12-8
Wisconsin is a tough place to play, regardless of who the Hoosiers have. Wisconsin is a very good team this year, and I think the Hoosiers would have lost it with, or without Zeller. Record: 12-9
Iowa has one of the worst defenses in the nation, and I think Indiana still would have beaten them on their home floor without Zeller. Record: 13-9
Indiana’s road woes probably would have prevailed in this one, just as they did WITH Zeller.
Without Zeller, Indiana and Purdue would have been two evenly-matched teams. Since this one was on the road, I would have to give the nod to the Boilers. Record: 13-11
Given the losing streak Illinois was on when they came to Assembly Hall, and the fact that the Hoosiers have had success under Tom Crean against the Illini at home, I would say that Indiana still would have won this one. Record 14-11
Northwestern is a team that has had Indiana’s number under Tom Crean, regardless of where the game is played. Without Zeller, Northwestern probably would have had the advantage with their guard-play. This one is a toss-up, but I will give the nod to Northwestern just based upon the past. Record: 14-12
Although these are all hypotheticals, and you could do this same piece for any important player in the nation, it shows how big of a commitment it was when Cody Zeller picked the Hoosiers. Without him, Indiana’s ceiling is probably the NIT. With him, they are in contention for a three to five seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Larry Bird once said, A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals. Although Zeller has yet to accomplish many goals at Indiana, he is well on his way.