What was presumably the most miserable night of the season for Cody Zeller was also the only miserable night of the season for Cody Zeller and the Indiana Hoosiers. Somehow Butler did a very Butler thing on Dec. 15 and endured two starters fouling out and an overtime session to have a walk-on hit a game-winning shot that handed the Hoosiers their only loss. So everyone was unhappy about that, Zeller included. After a day of tussling in vain with rugged Bulldogs defenders, he said it was time to work to get better.
So that, so far, represents the lone moment of real agitation, gloom and disappointment for a team considered a national championship frontrunner -- and the sophomore considered a National Player of the Year candidate who serves as its fulcrum. And it cut so deep, the failure injecting such a profound agony into him, that Zeller has no idea how he approached the next 24 hours besides watching some film and practicing some basketball.
"I honestly don't remember," Zeller says. "We had a pretty typical day."
Cody Zeller, former Sports Illustrated cover boy, averages 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds on 62.7 percent shooting for a team that has lost one game all year, opened Big Ten play with two road wins and spent the past week ranked No. 5 in the country. He was not worried about the worst moment of the season. He does not sound worried that his numbers are in the same orbit as last year, and his coach emphatically isn't worried about that, mostly because Indiana has lost one game all year and spent the past week ranked No. 5 in the country.
What the 7-footer might grant you is that he isn't good enough. Though he wouldn't be good enough if he actually was good enough. "You can never be happy with where you're at," Zeller says. "There are so many little things -- working on finishing more with your left hand, playing more on the perimeter. So many little things the media doesn't even realize is going on during the game, but makes a big difference to the production. Footwork stuff, especially in the post -- stuff like that is so important. One half-second here or there is going to be the difference."
So in assessing the leading candidates for Player of the Year at the season's midpoint, empirically, there isn't much difference between Cody Zeller v. 2011 and Cody Zeller v. 2012. He took about nine shots a game last year, making 5.6 on average. He has reached the same benchmark this season. He doesn't command the ball anymore than he did last year (24.2 percent possessions used in 2011-12, 24.6 percent in 2012-13). Zeller's offensive rating is the same: 126.9 this year and last. By a percentage point or two, he's doing more on the glass. There is no leap forward, but there is no slump back.
These are the numbers, and for Crean, numbers alone do not capture "the whole package of talent." That whole package involves, for example, trapping off a pick-and-roll, which Crean believes Zeller does better than any big man in the land. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody on another team, and there's a lot of great players in the country," Crean said. "I'm not looking at some finished product. We're not coaching him that way. We're looking at what can he be better at every day. For a guy that gets the attention that he gets and gets the accolades, he's getting coached as hard or harder than anybody in this program."
There is one more number that gets to Crean's point: Zeller has a plus-minus of 280, good for second in the country. When he is out there, Indiana hums. But Zeller says he hasn't seen more attention, he hasn't seen any junk defenses, he hasn't been befuddled. He's just working on a left-handed finish, letting teammates handle things if he can't and winning ... most of the time.
Breaking Down Four Other Leading Player of the Year Candidates
Mason Plumlee, Duke
Not to make too much of inflicting a welt upon a teammate's torso, but Duke's Alex Murphy finished off an offensive rebound flurry against Clemson on Tuesday night with a bucket and a foul, to which Mason Plumlee answered with a primal scream and a double-shove to Murphy's chest. It was exuberance that bordered on anger. It's the sort of scene that makes you wonder if Plumlee has infused a special energy into the Blue Devils, but probably it's just the 17.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game and being a favorite for Player of the Year honors. That makes a guy easy to follow, whether he leaves handprints on your pecs or not.
In Duke's 28-point win Monday, Plumlee missed out on double-digit scoring for the first time all season. The 6-10 senior is actually only at 10.3 points per game in his last three -- though he still averaged double-figure rebounds in that brief stretch -- but it's the klieg-lit moments that are most revealing. He had 18 against Kentucky, 20 against Minnesota, 16 against Louisville and then 21 points and 17 boards against Ohio State. He's been consistently good when good is most needed.
Trey Burke, Michigan
It's not even Trey Burke's 18.2 points and 53.3 percent shooting overall and 39.2 percent shooting from three-point range. It's the clinical precision of the nation's best point guard. The 6-foot sophomore has 116 assists against just 29 turnovers, a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. That stat speaks to the finishers Burke has around him but also the havoc he wreaks on the court.
"Every day there are some things he does in practice that are the ones that the truly great college players do, and I'm not talking about some incredible one-on-one move," Wolverines coach John Beilein says. "I'm talking about leadership, focus, emphasis on defense, emphasis on picking up his teammates. Those are the things I think have fed his journey. He's really playing well, playing as well as anybody in the league if not the nation. He has things in great perspective. As a result, his numbers are really incredible, because of his focus on his teammates."
Anthony Bennett, UNLV
New Mexico played a rugged non-conference schedule, its toughest ever and the 12th-most onerous in the nation according to the RPI. Lobos coach Steve Alford then spent much of an extended eight-day break before Mountain West play opened studying film of UNLV, and reflexively compared that to what he had seen, and he came to a conclusion. "Anthony Bennett is the best player we've had to go against to date," he said.
UNLV has had a lot of things going on: Mike Moser's injury and the subsequent ambiguity about his return, the midstream import of Khem Birch, and through it all a 6-8 freshman provided the mooring. Bennett averages 19.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, shooting 55.8 percent. In his most recent big moments, he scuffled, with 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting in a Dec. 29 loss at North Carolina and then 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting in a loss at New Mexico on Wednesday. He might be on the periphery of the Player of the Year race at the moment, but for once, the Mountain West might vault a player out of obscurity, so grueling is that league this year. "He just continues to get better," UNLV coach Dave Rice said.
Doug McDermott, Creighton
There may be no more offensively versatile player in the country than McDermott. But that hasn't changed from a year ago, and neither has the 6-7 forward's production. His 22.4 points per game rank fourth in the nation, and his offensive rating is 122.5, basically the same as his 2011-12 figures. His raw field goal percentage is down (60.1 to 55.1), but his true shooting percentage is up ever so slightly (67.8 to 68.3), all of which is to say McDermott is probably just as dangerous now as he was then.
He's going to the offensive glass a little less but still holding his own overall, snaring 7.2 rebounds per game, just one fewer than last season. But, like Duke's Plumlee, McDermott has supercharged his play for victories over name opponents that bolster a team's resume. He grinded to 30 points and eight rebounds against Wisconsin, poured in 29 points and nine boards the next night against Arizona State, hit five three-pointers and scored 23 points in a win over St. Joseph's, dropped 34 in a victory at Cal and kicked off Missouri Valley Conference play with his second double-double (29 points, 10 rebounds) against Evansville. McDermott, basically, is another player who battles his own high bar of success to push to the forefront of awards lists.