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How concerned should Indiana be about Cody Zeller’s struggles?

Jan 28, 2013, 12:22 PM EDT

Michigan State v Indiana Getty Images

Jeff Goodman brought up an interesting point with his column from the Indiana-Michigan State game on Sunday (and it makes this column from November look prescient):

[T]here is room for improvement. Think about it. If Indiana is this good with Zeller still not consistently showing his best, think of how dangerous it will be once he starts performing like a player-of-the-year candidate.

Indiana has looked like the best team in the Big Ten, a top five team and a national title contender all while the Preseason National Player of the Year has looked, well, normal. He’s averaging 16.4 points and 8.2 boards, yes, but I think even Indiana fans will admit that Zeller hasn’t looked the part yet this season. He hasn’t even been his team’s MVP this season; that award goes to Victor Oladipo.

A major reason for that is because he’s a team player, a kid that cares less about his stats and more about his team’s wins. And that’s why I tend to disagree with Goodman here, althought it’s more semantics than anything.

I don’t think Zeller needs to dominate for Indiana to win, especially not on the nights where Oladipo is playing well and guys like Jordy Hulls, Christian Watford and company are knocking down shots.

Where Indiana needs Zeller is to dominate is in crunch time. Where they need him to be his best is down the stretch. There’s too much talent on Indiana for Zeller to have to carry the load for 40 minutes every night. But he is their most dangerous offensive weapon, when means that he needs to be able to be relied upon for a big bucket during a close game. With IU’s backloaded league schedule, particularly in road games, that will come into play ever more.

Sunday was a great example. For the second straight game, Zeller struggled offensively. But he got the biggest basket of the game — a driving layup with 1:39 left to put Indiana up by four — and then came up with the game-clinching charge with 14 seconds left.

At the risk of cherry-picking, the best half of basketball that Zeller has played this year came in the first 20 minutes against Wisconsin. The Hoosiers lost that game when Zeller did a disappearing act in the second half.

Zeller is 2-11 from the field in his last two games. There’s no question that he needs to be better than that for Indiana to survive, especially with the rough road they have ahead.

But they also don’t need him to averaged 20 points and 12 boards or play like the National Player of the Year. He can be the best player on the team without being a force-fed centerpiece.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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