BLOOMINGTON – To paint the picture of an ugly game in the Big Ten Conference, one of the artists was the first to admit it was no masterpiece.
“It’s not going to be a beautiful, picture-perfect game,” said Tom Crean of his team’s game with Iowa on Saturday. “It’s too good of a league.”
That comment in many ways was fitting of a scrappy defensive contest against the Hawkeyes at Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers allowed just 14 points in the first half but shot just 28 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
Iowa stayed in the game with a group of gritty players yet the Hoosiers never were up by less than double digits in the second half in a 73-60 victory.
“Getting to this point is not easy, and getting to this year is not easy,” said Crean. “These guys continue to improve, they have great resolve.”
Pretty or ugly, wins are simply wins as the calendar turns from February to March. Whether they are works of art tends to fade from importance as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
Yet one portrait that is painted game after game and continues to improve is that of Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers’ sophomore center. Amidst a defensive game Zeller stood out with a 22-point, ten rebound effort that made sure Indiana wouldn’t be a victim of an upset on that Saturday.
While Crean praised the entire team for the efforts of 40 minutes, he saved his most glowing reviews for the seven-footer.
“Cody had a phenomenal night, a great week leading up to tonight,” said Crean. “He continues to get better and better, continues to get a lot of attention on the court, and earns everything that he gets.”
What that could be in the short-term are some post-season awards from the Wooden Award for College Basketball Player of the Year to Big Ten honors. That’s what happens when you play for a team that has spent a majority of the season ranked No. 1 and lead that squad in scoring (16.5 points per game), rebounds (8.1 per game) and blocks (1.4 per game).
“Our defensive really gets us going. Our defense can be consistent whether are shots are falling or not,” said Zeller of what makes the team successful. “It obviously looks a lot better if we are scoring but like you said we can win if it’s a good scoring game just because our defense is playing well.”
Crean said over and over again that Zeller is too and the benefits may last beyond his time in Bloomington. Starting with his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the beginning of the season, the sophomore from Washington has been the center of positive and negative attention over the past five months.
His play has been equally praised and scrutinized over the past few months depending on his performance more than any other player for the 25-4 Hoosiers.
“He will be better for all of this, with the standard that he is being held to. Locally, nationally, whatever you want to call it,” said Crean of the scrutiny. “He’ll be better for it. He may not see it for years down the road and it will be long after he’s gone from here.
“But he’ll be better for having endured the scrutiny that he goes through.”
Expect that to continue as Indiana makes their run for their first NCAA Championship since 1987 as a likely number one seed. During the title chance the debate will continue on whether Zeller will forgo his final two years at Indiana to test the waters of the NBA Draft.
Projections by some services have the center as a lottery pick with NBADraft.net putting him as high as third in their February 20th mock draft.
Crean wasn’t about the speculate on that Saturday night following his strong performance, but did offer some advice to those who are watch number 40 over the next month.
“You better appreciate him while he’s here,” said Crean as he hopes fans will get to admire the portrait of a talented player at least till April.