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The Big Chill

Nov. 12, 2012
Nov. 12, 2012

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Nov. 12, 2012

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The Big Chill

Don't be fooled by Cody Zeller's laid-back disposition: Big Handsome is thinking (and scoring) faster than everyone else

Cody Zeller's face has a crimson glow. It's not because he's embarrassed; he does not embarrass easily. It's not because he is flush with love for Indiana basketball, though he is undoubtedly the star of the program. No, it's because the 7-foot sophomore center is sitting in a small theater in the Hoosiers' practice facility, where he is about to offer commentary on a video compilation of plays he made last season. The hue on Zeller's face is being cast by a crimson billboard projected on the screen above. The white block letters read: #40 CODY ZELLER. HOW HE SCORES.

This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2012 issue

The 30-minute video is one of several produced by the IU coaching staff, not only so Zeller can study himself but also so the Hoosiers' younger players can analyze the best big man in college basketball. And big man is a much better way to describe Zeller than center, an outdated term that does not do justice to Zeller's combination of futuristic athleticism and throwback fundamentals. "When we recruited him, it was hard to look at him as a guy who was positional," Indiana coach Tom Crean says. "You didn't look at him and say, 'This guy is a center.' You just kept seeing a big basketball player."

Zeller, age 20, is the best collegiate player, big or small, in America. The reasons are evident on the screen: He unspools a mind-boggling array of moves, countermoves, deceptions, hesitations, feints and fakes—many of them developed in competition against his older brothers, Luke and Tyler, who like Cody were both named Indiana's Mr. Basketball and McDonald's All Americans—and, ultimately, lots and lots of buckets. After being named the Big Ten's freshman of the year, Cody turned down the chance to be an NBA lottery pick and returned to Bloomington, where he is a consensus preseason All-America on the nation's consensus No. 1 team. That makes him the face of the sport as well as his program.

With his blond locks and easy smile, Zeller has earned the nickname Big Handsome around campus, but a more appropriate sobriquet is the one given to him by Indiana's director of basketball operations, Calbert Cheaney, a former national player of the year at Indiana who had a 13-year NBA career. "I like to call him Big Simple," Cheaney says. "He's so understated, you almost don't know that he's there sometimes. But on the court he speaks volumes."

How does Cody Zeller score? Let us count the ways.

• The sit-'n'-spin. After he was held to four points and three rebounds in his Big Ten debut, against Michigan State, Zeller studied video of the game and saw that he was standing too tall in the post, enabling the Spartans' muscular defenders to knock him off-balance. The lessons he learned then are visible on the highlight reel: Zeller positions himself on the left block in front of Minnesota center Ralph Sampson III. After catching the ball, he bends his knees and "sits" lower to establish leverage. Then, in a flash, he glances over his left shoulder, spins to his right and dunks. The only thing missing is the thought bubble above Sampson's head: Now you see him, now you don't.

• Face and space. If Zeller gets shoved off the block or is double-teamed, he pulls his dribble back along the baseline and faces his defenders from a few feet away. A typical center would then throw the ball to a teammate and try to reestablish position down low. Zeller, however, can morph into a guard and take advantage of the space he has created. In the video Big Handsome is double-teamed in the low post against Notre Dame. Rather than force a bad shot, he turns toward the defenders, lifts the ball for a shot fake and maneuvers his way to the rim. Zeller doesn't explode so much as glide on his way to the lay-in. "He moves really well for a guy his size," says one NBA scout. "He's really skilled too. Even though he's seven feet tall, I think he'll be a four man in our league."

• Give 'em the slip. Zeller's size and athleticism make him ideal for setting high pick-and-rolls. Opponents know this, which is why many big men—in the video it's Michigan forward Jordan Morgan—leave Zeller early to hedge on the ball handler. No problem. As Morgan tries to jump on a pick that has yet to be set, Big Simple shifts directions, slips back toward the baseline and catches the ball on the right wing. Now he can square his shoulders toward the goal and play a little face and space. Zeller uses a shot fake to get the defender off his feet, takes one dribble and converts an uncontested layup with his left hand.

• The rim run. This is Zeller's signature play. Every time the Hoosiers get a defensive rebound, he sprints down the middle of the floor to the opposite rim and looks for a pass. He scores this way not only because he is long and fast but also because he is relentless. "It's really the discipline to run each time," Zeller says. "The first four or five times I might not be open, but by the sixth time the other big guy is gonna say, 'I'm tired of running.' That's the time I get a layup."

The video illustration comes from Indiana's win over New Mexico State in the round of 64 in the 2012 NCAA tournament. As the Hoosiers begin their conversion from defense to offense, Zeller is several feet behind Hamidu Rahman, the Aggies' 6'11", 245-pound center. After a few strides Zeller, still without the ball, and Rahman are even at half-court. A second later a huffing and puffing Rahman gets an unobstructed view of Zeller's back as he scores on a layup.

• Punch and duck. The video shows a rare instance of Zeller's being guarded by someone as big and quick as he is: Kentucky's Anthony Davis. In this sequence from their game in Bloomington in December 2011, Davis is playing textbook denial defense. As the Indiana guards swing the ball around the perimeter, Zeller steps away from Davis to the other side of the lane, abruptly reverses direction to bang into Davis (the "punch") and then establishes low position on the block (the "duck"). Before Davis can recover, the pass comes and Zeller drops it in the hoop cleanly. Says Indiana assistant Tim Buckley as he watches, "Cody's taking advantage of Anthony Davis being in the right position defensively."

That's what it's like to guard Zeller: Even when you're right, you're wrong.

I don't want to sound like a nerd," Zeller says, "but I'm a math guy. I like doing math problems. I like thinking in numbers. I'd much rather take a math test than write a paper."

Meet Cody Zeller, Problem Solver. His mother, Lorri, says he has always been good at "deciphering information." His father, Steve, says that of his three sons, Cody was the one who was most likely to notice his mom's new dress or the guy at the mall with the strange walk or the odd-looking dog they just passed in the family car. "We walked out of a roomful of people one time, and he said to me, 'Did you see the funny way that guy scratched his head?'" Steve says. "I had no idea what he was talking about until he imitated it. But that's Cody. He always notices the little things."

That was especially true on the basketball court, where Cody has spent his life trying to solve two very large problems: Luke and Tyler, who were six and two years older than Cody, respectively. Growing up in basketball-mad Washington, Ind., where the high school gym holds 7,090 people, more than half of the town's population, Luke and Tyler pounded on their baby brother for hours on end. Luke was 6'10" by the time he was in the ninth grade. Tyler bloomed a little later (he was 5'10" as a high school freshman before shooting up to 6'11" as a senior), but he was the more aggressive one. It was up to young Cody to master these twin equations despite his physical disadvantages.

"I had to find other ways to win," Cody says. "I wasn't going to score around the rim, so I had to be scrappy or outwork them. Now, even though I'm the same size as they are, I've kept that attitude. I'm still looking for little things I can do here and there to get an edge."

He found those little things by becoming a passionate student of the game, taking mental notes not just on his brothers but also on their friends and opponents. He would spend hours in practice applying what he had observed. The result was a blend of his brothers' playing styles. Luke was primarily a three-point shooter; Tyler preferred to body up in the post. Cody learned to do both. Along the way he developed considerable skill, guile and, most of all, toughness. "He was the ornery one," Tyler says. "Cody would lose five straight times and still say, 'Let's go one more.' He's always been that way."

The Brothers Zeller played a variety of sports, but growing up where they did (and as tall as they did), it was inevitable that they would concentrate on hoops. All three of them won state titles. Luke wanted to go to Indiana, but when then IU coach Mike Davis did not aggressively recruit him, he chose Notre Dame. Tyler also considered Indiana, but at the time the program was in shambles following the departure of coach Kelvin Sampson after repeated NCAA violations. Tyler opted for North Carolina.

By the time Cody was ready to choose a college, Crean had reversed Indiana's fortunes enough to persuade Cody that he'd be joining a winner. Last season the Hoosiers won nearly as many games (27) as they did in Crean's first three years combined (28). Zeller showed remarkable consistency for a freshman, reaching double digits in scoring all but four times in 36 games. He led the team in points (15.6), rebounds (6.6) and steals (1.4) per game, and he ranked first in the Big Ten (and tied for 15th nationally) in field goal percentage (62.5).

The relentlessness Zeller exhibits on those rim runs extends to every area of his life, from the classroom (he gets mostly A's at Indiana's prestigious Kelley School of Business) to the weight room (where he added 18 pounds of muscle last season) to the team's daily workouts. ("There's not one time we can go back to last year and say, 'Wow, Cody had a bad practice,'" Crean says. "That never happened.")

Book smarts and court smarts are very different things, but Zeller has an uncanny ability to transfer information into instantaneous action—what Crean calls his "quick-twitch" skills. "He has great reactive athleticism," the coach says. "It's not like his mind moves and his legs have to catch up. He sees something, and he can react right away."

This fall Zeller's three-step vertical leap was measured at 39 inches. (At the NBA draft combine last summer, the average power forward's three-step vertical was 34 inches. The centers jumped 33.2.) Zeller may look like a big man, but he has the speed and conditioning of a smaller player—he does his running drills with Indiana's guards. Thanks to his hyperactive metabolism, he typically loses five to eight pounds during a game or practice, which he tries to recoup by ingesting at least 5,000 calories per day. Yet he can unwind with the best of them. In high school his teammates teased him about always being the first to fall asleep on the bus ride home.

Even Zeller's living quarters reflect his balanced nature. He's not a neat freak, but he's no slob either. "I always say my room is always five minutes from being clean," he says.

His body also seems in perfect equilibrium. Zeller's torso measures 105.4 centimeters; his legs, 104.1. His perfectly placed center of gravity allows him to dart around the court quickly without losing balance. And while his competitive fire burns, he rarely loses his cool. Says Jordan Hulls, Indiana's 6-foot senior guard, "I've never seen Cody get angry at anyone."

Zeller's poise was essential in the second half of his freshman season. "The Big Ten is a conference where [the officials] let you play physically off the ball, but Cody never got frustrated," Ohio State assistant coach Dave Dickerson says. Exhibit A: the Hoosiers' home game last February against Illinois, in which Illini center Meyers Leonard jostled Zeller all night. At one point Leonard shoved Zeller while the two were running downcourt. Zeller made sure the referees noticed by exaggerating his fall. He came up laughing. A few possessions later Zeller drove through Leonard and "accidentally" popped him on the chin. Zeller scored a game-high 22 points, including 12 of 14 from the foul line, in the Hoosiers' 13-point win. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo praised Zeller by saying, "You could probably punch him in the mouth or you could kiss him, and it doesn't seem to affect him either way."

Off the court, meanwhile, the kid who was salutatorian of his high school class was the same one who punked his teachers by turning their clocks ahead five minutes, flipping the cord on the projection screen so they couldn't reach it or hiding staplers in the ceiling tiles. At home Cody's favorite prank is to tie pull-string firecrackers to door hinges and cabinets. If an Indiana player can't find his car keys, he can make a pretty good guess who hid them. "He likes to play the whole Golden Boy card, but deep down he wants to hit you with a couple of stabs here and there," says Indiana's 6'7" junior forward, Will Sheehey.

This season Zeller is primed to show off an even greater variety of skills. His main area of improvement in the off-season was his ball handling above the three-point line. Zeller has always had the ability to make three-pointers—in a recent drill he sank 50 treys in five minutes—but he did not attempt any shots from beyond the arc last season. That too will change. "You have to stretch him constantly, make him more complete," says Crean, who envisions Zeller becoming an even more fully developed player in the NBA. "As a college coach, you want to feel like you're not going to see their best days."

Indiana is lucky to have Zeller back for his sophomore season. The program probably won't be so fortunate next spring if, as expected, he is projected to be a top five NBA pick. One reason he is likely to leave is that between the advanced credits he accrued in high school and the work he completed during summers, Zeller will be only a few credits shy of earning his degree. Says Steve Zeller, "He's so competitive that when he starts something, he's going to finish it."

Still, if you understand the way Cody Zeller thinks, you know the NBA is not what his mind is focused on right now. He knows better than most that if you want to solve big problems, you have to maintain your sense of proportion. Math don't lie. Keep it simple, Big Simple.

"You didn't look at him and say, 'This guy is a center,'" Crean says of Zeller in high school. "You just kept seeing a big basketball player."
"I don't want to sound like a nerd," says Zeller, "but I'm a math guy. I like doing math problems. I like thinking in numbers."

SI.COM

Get the inside scoop on the latest news in college basketball in Seth Davis's Hoop Thoughts at SI.com/mag

PHOTOPhotograph by CHET STRANGE/IU ATHLETICSMAN OF THE PEOPLE Fans welcomed Zeller back with open arms at the team's Hoosier Hysteria rally, but the Indiana native will really feel the love if he helps deliver IU's first national title since 1987.PHOTOANDREW HANCOCKREACTION SHOTS His size and physical tools make NBA scouts drool, but Zeller really stands apart from his peers for his ability to process what's happening around him on the floor and react before opponents are up to speed.PHOTOPAT LOVELL/CAL SPORT MEDIAZELLERS' MARKET As kids, Luke (below) and Tyler (near left) dominated their youngest brother before getting a taste of the NBA, but Cody (far left) is the one with the brightest pro future: After skipping the draft to return for his sophomore season, he's a likely lottery pick next summer.PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (TYLER)[See caption above]PHOTOBARRY GOSSAGE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (LUKE)[See caption above]