Another night, another Big Ten test for Cody Zeller and Indiana

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source: APIf doubts remained Indiana’s return after last month’s win against the-No. 1 Kentucky, Saturday’s victory over No. 2 Ohio State ended those.

The Hoosiers (13-1) might not be a Top 10 team (fitting, since they’re ranked No. 12), but it’s clear Tom Crean’s rebuilding project arrived at least a year ahead of schedule. Not bad for a guy who had one returning player his first season in Bloomington.

Next up? Asserting themselves as a player for the Big Ten title.

That resumes tonight when Indiana plays host to No. 18 Michigan, a team that probably isn’t as good as its 12-2 record would indicate, but should never be taken lightly as long as John Beilein’s coaching and guys like Tim Hardaway, Jordan Morgan and Trey Burke are on the floor. (Inside the Hall can fill all your preview needs if you’re interested.)

Anyway, if Indiana wins, it’ll improve to 2-1 in Big Ten play and will have navigated its toughest three-game with aplomb. A 13-5 conference record is probable and would put them in the running.

That means doing more of what’s worked thus far: deadly outside shooting by Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, continued production from Victor Oladipo inside and more of that pressure defense that’s forcing clumps of turnovers.

Also, getting the ball to Cody Zeller more often would help.

Zeller, the 6-11 freshman who leads the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding, has had foul issues three of the last five games, including his first two Big Ten games. As Luke Winn notes, his presence is the reason why other players are getting better looks and is the centerpiece of Indiana’s turnaround.

But he needs the rock. This has been an issue much of the season (The Mikan Drill has a great breakdown why), though the Hoosiers have clearly figured out what’s working. I mean, they are winning. He could use some more shots – gotta agree with Terry Hutchens’ assessment here – which would likely ensure Hulls and Watford continue seeing open looks.

Not that points are the only way Zeller can contribute or control a game. Ohio State center Jared Sullinger should know something about how a freshman can do just that. He was impressed by Zeller.

“He’s a good basketball player,” Sullinger said. “He’s very creative around the rim and he’s strong. A lot of freshmen don’t come in strong and ready to play Big Ten basketball. Big Ten basketball is a very physical conference as you could see today. There was a lot of banging and physicality both down low and at the top. Zeller is a great basketball player. Give him a lot of respect. He played one hell of a game.”

And that was with Zeller fouling out in just 21 minutes. He’ll see more of that in Big Ten play, starting tonight with Morgan and Michigan. If he figures out how to stay in games, the Hoosiers have a shot at the title.

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