Michigan Indiana Basketball

Cody Zeller, the nation’s best role player, lifts Indiana to 1st in Big Ten

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Cody Zeller was supposed to be the superstar for this Indiana team.

He was supposed to be the Player of the Year candidate, the all-american who has an offense custom-built to his every post-move; the guy that opposing coaches lost sleep fretting about and spent far too much practice time game-planning for.

Zeller is probably still the most talented player on the Indiana roster. He’s easily the best NBA prospect and his numbers are still pretty impressive. But at this point in the season, he’s probably not even Indiana’s MVP. That award would go to Victor Oladipo.

But I don’t think that matters at all to Zeller, as he has embraced the role that he has to play on this team. And rest assured, Zeller’s become a role-player, and that’s what makes Indiana so good. They are, at heart, a perimeter-oriented team. They have shooters everywhere on the floor. They have a pair of quality ball-handlers. Their MVP’s biggest improvement has been his ability to knock down open threes. Their power forward’s most valuable trait as a player is his ability to spread the floor.

It just so happens that this perimeter-oriented group just so happens to have the nation’s best center in the middle.

Indiana doesn’t need Zeller to make all the plays. They need him to make the winning plays. Like, for example, the two putback dunks he had midway through the second half that pushed Indiana’s lead back to six after Michigan had gotten within 57-55. Or the loose ball that he tracked down with just under two minutes left that saved possession for Indiana when they were up 69-62.

Zeller led the way with 19 points on 8-10 shooting and nine boards in Indiana’s 81-73 win on Saturday night against No. 1 Michigan in Assembly Hall, but he didn’t need a touch on every possession to do it. He capitalized on the opportunities he had and he made the big plays down the stretch.

And thanks to Zeller’s play, for the first time since Feb. 13th, 2008, Indiana is in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings.

And in all likelihood, the Hoosiers will be climbing their way back to the top of the polls come Monday morning after they knocked off Michigan, the current No. 1 team in the country. They may not actually be the best team in the country (ahem, Florida), but polls aren’t exactly the best way to measure the best teams. You’re No. 3 and beat No. 1 on the same day No. 2 loses, you’re moving on up.

It’s far too early in the season to be getting up-in-arms about something as meaningless as national rankings, but Indiana’s placement atop the Big Ten standings is hugely important.

Everyone in the Big Ten has a tough schedule this year, and a number of the marquee games have been backlogged, meaning that the top teams play each other quite a bit over the final month and a half of conference season.

Indiana’s may be the toughest simply because they have yet to play a difficult road game. Five of their last nine games are away from Bloomington. Those five road trips: at Illinois, at No. 11 Ohio State, at No. 13 Michigan State, at No. 23 Minnesota and at No. 1 Michigan. That doesn’t include their home game against the Buckeyes five days before the rematch with the Wolverines.

If the Hoosiers go 4-2 in those six games, I would be impressed. If I was a betting man, I’d be wagering on the Hoosiers going 3-3 during that stretch, point being that Indiana isn’t going to make it through the rest of conference season unscathed. Digging themselves a one game hole behind Michigan — even considering the fact that the Wolverines’ next three games are Ohio State, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State — would make an outright title a tough feat to accomplish.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

SUNDAY’S SNACKS: No. 5 Iowa, No. 12 SMU pick up road wins

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) passes around South Florida guard Jahmal McMurray (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
AP Photo/Brian Blanco
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GAME OF THE DAY: James Madison 98, Hofstra 95 (OT)

The Dukes managed to fight back at home against Hofstra, with a Ron Curry three-pointer forcing overtime. From there Matt Brady’s team took control against a Hofstra team with little depth thanks to injuries throughout the course of the season. Curry scored a game-high 31 for the Dukes, who forced a three-way tie for third in the CAA with this win (Hofstra and Towson are also 8-4). Brian Bernardi scored 22 points and Juan’ya Green became just the fourth player in Division I history to score 1,000 points at two schools (Niagara being the other) in the loss for Hofstra.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 5 Iowa 77, Illinois 65: The Fighting Illini got off to a slow start offensively, missing their first 11 two-point attempts, and they were unable to climb out of that hole against the Big Ten-leading Hawkeyes. Peter Jok scored 23 points and Jarrod Uthoff posted a double-double of 18 points and 12 boards for Iowa, which limited Illinois to 39.4 percent shooting from the field.

No. 16 Oregon 76, Utah 66: The Ducks maintained sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 with a ten-point win over the Runnin’ Utes in Eugene. The game changed in the first half when Jakob Poeltl was given his second foul, and from that point on Dana Altman’s team controlled the action. Dillon Brooks was outstanding in the win, setting new career highs in points (30) and assists (nine) while also grabbing six rebounds.

STARRED

Dillon Brooks, Oregon: 30 points, six rebounds, nine assists and two steals in the Ducks’ win over Utah.

Shake Milton, SMU: Milton shot 6-for-9 from three, scoring 22 points in the Mustangs’ 92-58 win at USF.

Ron Curry, James Madison: Curry scored 31 points and hit the game-tying three pointer late in regulation as the Dukes came back to beat Hofstra 98-95 in overtime.

Rachel Banham, Minnesota: Banham became the second woman in Division I history to score 60 points in a game, doing so in the Golden Gophers’ 112-106 double overtime win at Northwestern. Banham shot 19-for-32 from the field and 14-for-16 from the foul line.

STRUGGLED

Brandon Taylor, Utah: Taylor went scoreless in a loss at No. 16 Utah, going 0-for-4 from the field and committing four turnovers.

Nehemias Morillo, USF: Morillo scored three points on 1-for-7 shooting and committed four turnovers in the Bulls’ loss to No. 12 SMU.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 12 SMU picked up another win, as they blew out USF 92-58 in Tampa. Shake Milton led five Mustangs in double figures with 22 points, and Nic Moore finished with 17 points and eight assists.
  • No. 17 Miami moved to 7-3 in ACC play with a 75-68 win at Georgia Tech. Sheldon McClellan scored 22 points and Davon Reed 15 for the Hurricanes, who host Pittsburgh Tuesday night.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UConn has won each of its last three games by at least 18 points, as Sunday afternoon they handled East Carolina 85-67. Rodney Purvis and Shonn Miller scored 16 points apiece, and Daniel Hamilton chipped in with 12 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and three steals.
  • Iona remained a game behind Monmouth in the MAAC standings as they won 75-61 at Niagara. Isaiah Williams scored 21 points and Deyshonee Much 15 for the Gaels, who are 10-3 in league play.
  • Jaylen Adams’ three pointer as time expired gave St. Bonaventure a 65-62 win at home over Saint Louis. Adams scored 19 points, Marcus Posley 15 and Dion Wright 14 (along with ten boards) for the Bonnies.
  • Also in the MAAC, Marist upset Siena by the final score of 79-73 in Poughkeepsie. Brian Parker scored 24 points for the Red Foxes, who won despite Siena’s Nico Clareth scoring a career-high 26.
  • Pat Birt scored 27 points to lead Tulsa to a 77-63 win over Houston. Damyean Dotson scored 23 points for the Cougars, whose three-game win streak came to an end with the defeat.

Milton, Moore help No. 12 SMU rout South Florida 92-58

Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (1) defends as SMU guard Nic Moore (11) leaps to the basket for a shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Dallas. SMU won 80-68.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Shake Milton scored 22 points and Nic Moore added 17 as No. 12 SMU rebounded from its second loss of the season with a 92-58 rout of struggling South Florida on Sunday.

The Mustangs (20-2, 9-2 American Athletic Conference) shrugged off a three-point road loss to Houston by matching their season high with 14 3-pointers and shooting 60 percent overall. They never trailed, scoring the game’s first 11 points. SMU hit its last six shots before halftime and then opened the second half with an 8-0 run to build their lead to 30 points.

Jahmal McMurray led South Florida (5-20, 2-10) with 18 points.

SMU, which had lost two straight on the road, has matched the best 22-game start in school history. The Mustangs won 26 of their first 28 games before finishing 26-4 in 1955-56.

The conference leaders have topped 20 wins in three of four seasons under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who was suspended for the first nine games of the season and will not be able to take the Mustangs to this year’s NCAA tournament because of multiple rules infractions.

Milton made 8 of 12 shots, including 6 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc. Five of Moore’s six field goals were 3-pointers, and the senior guard finished with eight assists.

Jordan Tolbert made all five of his shots on the way 15 points and Markus Kennedy came off the bench to contribute 10 points and grab a team-high nine rebounds for SMU.

South Florida clinched its second 20-loss season in three years under coach Orlando Antigua. Jaleel Cousins scored 13 points and Angel Nunez had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Bulls, who trailed by as many as 36 points in the second half.

TIP-INS

SMU: The Mustangs improved to 2-2 following a school-best 18-0 start, stopping a two-game road skid included a nine-point setback at Temple and the three-point loss at Houston. SMU has won 27 games each of the past two seasons and its 74 wins since the start of 2013-14 are the most during a three-season span in program history.

South Florida: The Bulls haven’t beaten a ranked team since Feb. 19, 2012, when they upset No. 19 Louisville 58-51 on the road. They haven’t defeated a Top 25 opponent in the Sun Dome since a two-point win over No. 23 Seton Hall on Jan. 13, 2012. USF is 0-3 vs. ranked opponents this season, with two of the three losses to SMU. The Bulls lost to then-No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 27.

UP NEXT

SMU hosts Tulsa on Wednesday.

South Florida is at Temple on Feb. 14.