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

Nov 21, 2012, 2:32 AM EDT

Mikael Hopkins, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller

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.

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