Minnesota set the tone early against Indiana’s Cody Zeller on the interior in its 77-73 win Tuesday night at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minn.
First it was Gopher forward Trevor Mbakwe with an emphatic block that rejected Zeller at the rim with 13:55 to play in the first half. Less than six minutes later, uber-athletic senior Rodney Williams used his length to swat another Zeller shot in the paint. From that point on Zeller appeared tentative, including scoring only one basket in the final 4:39 of regulation.
He finished with nine points on 2-of-9 shooting and added seven rebounds.
This highlights a lingering problem for Indiana this season and should be a concern, heading into the Big Ten tournament and into March. In order for Indiana to thrive, Zeller must to assertive on the interior. Tuesday night, he was outplayed by a more physical and more imposing Mbakwe. Mbakwe’s 21 points and 12 rebounds, plus the energy he brought on both ends, powered Minnesota to a much-needed win.
Indiana needs the Zeller whose energy pushed him to 24 points and eight rebounds in a win over Ohio State on Feb. 10, or the Zeller who had 19 and 10 one week earlier in a win over Michigan. He doesn’t necessarily need to be the centerpiece of the offense, as swingman Victor Oladipo has shown that he can carry a significant amount of the load, but Zeller needs to be there as an elite complement on the interior that will allow Oladipo and others to thrive.
He has the tools and the array of post move to be a force. We know this. Look no further than his 16.6 rebounds and 8.1 rebounds per game for evidence of it. But as the No. 1 team, the grading scale is different. His continued presence is what makes the Hoosiers a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and in a better position to make a run to the Final Four.
Indiana’s has now lost three times when ranked No. 1 in the nation and drops to 24-4 overall and 13-4 in Big Ten play. That opens the door for Michigan to climb back into the race for the regular season conference title. It also makes one date very important: March 10 in Ann Arbor, when the Wolverines meet Indiana in the Big Ten regular season finale.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_