Mikael Hopkins, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller

Cody Zeller’s stats may go down this year, but is that good for IU?


BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The way Indiana’s postgame player availability works is that Tom Crean comes in and does his press conference, and when he’s finished talking, the players are brought in and stand off to the side for their interviews.

On Tuesday night, after Jordy Hulls earned MOP of the Legends Classic by scoring 17 points in an 82-72 overtime win over Georgetown in the final, all the cameras and reporters surrounded him. Standing next to Jordy? Cody Zeller, who awkwardly waited with a goofy smile for the stragglers that couldn’t get their cameras or recorders close enough to Hulls.

That’s Preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller, mind you; the guy that could end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and whose face has been plastered all over college basketball preview magazines. And I can promise you, the man known as “The Big Handsome” didn’t get put on the cover of Sports Illustrated for his dashing good looks.

How often do you think he’s an afterthought in a postgame press conference?

Because that’s exactly what he was on Tuesday.

And that’s the best news that an Indiana fan can hear.

One of the knocks on this Indiana team heading into the season, one of the main reasons that this season has been labeled as ‘not having any dominant teams’, is because of a perceived lack of talent surrounding Zeller. That’s not a shot at guys like Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford, but who else on this Indiana roster looks like an NBA player? Kentucky had six of them last season, by comparison. I dedicated an entire column to this back in April.

What the Hoosiers proved at Barclays in winning the Legends Classic, however, is that they do have some other pieces, because they beat Georgia and they beat Georgetown with Zeller looking, well, pretty normal.

To his credit, Zeller’s battling “asthmatic bronchitis or something” and, as he put it, “didn’t get my wind until tonight.” That “asthmatic bronchitis or something” could easily be credited for the six-point, four-rebound performance Zeller turned in on Monday. And while the 17 points and eight boards Zeller had Tuesday looked better in the box score, the Preseason Player of the Year was a long way from dominant. The Hoosiers didn’t look to him on key possessions down the stretch. He finished 4-11 from the floor and did the majority of his scoring at the free throw line.

And that may not be something that changes this season, either.

Because Indiana has enough quality pieces surrounding Zeller that they don’t need him to dominate this season.

“You’ve gotta do what’s required to win,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said after the game. “I think Will Sheehey said it best: everybody did what they do best tonight.”

Indiana is deep. They played nine guys on Tuesday, have a tenth rotation player on the bench that didn’t get into the game and are still waiting for two big men that will see time to get ruled eligible by the NCAA. And while the other eight players that saw time aren’t on the fast track to the first round, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t quality college players. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t fit into what Crean wants to do offensively.

“We keep trying to stress to these guys, it’s not the quantity of your minutes, it’s the quality of your play,” Crean said. “If you’re looking quantity of minutes, we’re not a good program right now. We’ve got too many guys. We really want to keep improving that quality of play. It’s easy to talk about it, it’s harder to do it.”

One of the biggest changes this season is the addition of freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, who is another guy that can be relied upon to make a play in a big spot. He hit the dagger on Tuesday, a fadeaway three at the end of a shot clock in with 45 seconds left in overtime to give the Hoosiers a ten point lead. Ferrell was one of five guys in double figures against Georgetown and one of seven guys to score at least six points.

Everything doesn’t have to run through Zeller this season.

He can be just as effective acting as a decoy, freeing up the other weapons on the IU roster, as he can getting 25 post touches a game. Case in point: Indiana shot 34.6% from three before Zeller showed up on campus and knocked down threes at a 43.1% clip during his freshman season.

The point I’m trying to make?

Don’t be surprised to see Zeller’s numbers take a hit this year, and don’t be surprised when Indiana benefits from it.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.