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Cody Zeller, the nation’s best role player, lifts Indiana to 1st in Big Ten

Feb 3, 2013, 12:38 AM EDT

Michigan Indiana Basketball

Cody Zeller was supposed to be the superstar for this Indiana team.

He was supposed to be the Player of the Year candidate, the all-american who has an offense custom-built to his every post-move; the guy that opposing coaches lost sleep fretting about and spent far too much practice time game-planning for.

Zeller is probably still the most talented player on the Indiana roster. He’s easily the best NBA prospect and his numbers are still pretty impressive. But at this point in the season, he’s probably not even Indiana’s MVP. That award would go to Victor Oladipo.

But I don’t think that matters at all to Zeller, as he has embraced the role that he has to play on this team. And rest assured, Zeller’s become a role-player, and that’s what makes Indiana so good. They are, at heart, a perimeter-oriented team. They have shooters everywhere on the floor. They have a pair of quality ball-handlers. Their MVP’s biggest improvement has been his ability to knock down open threes. Their power forward’s most valuable trait as a player is his ability to spread the floor.

It just so happens that this perimeter-oriented group just so happens to have the nation’s best center in the middle.

Indiana doesn’t need Zeller to make all the plays. They need him to make the winning plays. Like, for example, the two putback dunks he had midway through the second half that pushed Indiana’s lead back to six after Michigan had gotten within 57-55. Or the loose ball that he tracked down with just under two minutes left that saved possession for Indiana when they were up 69-62.

Zeller led the way with 19 points on 8-10 shooting and nine boards in Indiana’s 81-73 win on Saturday night against No. 1 Michigan in Assembly Hall, but he didn’t need a touch on every possession to do it. He capitalized on the opportunities he had and he made the big plays down the stretch.

And thanks to Zeller’s play, for the first time since Feb. 13th, 2008, Indiana is in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings.

And in all likelihood, the Hoosiers will be climbing their way back to the top of the polls come Monday morning after they knocked off Michigan, the current No. 1 team in the country. They may not actually be the best team in the country (ahem, Florida), but polls aren’t exactly the best way to measure the best teams. You’re No. 3 and beat No. 1 on the same day No. 2 loses, you’re moving on up.

It’s far too early in the season to be getting up-in-arms about something as meaningless as national rankings, but Indiana’s placement atop the Big Ten standings is hugely important.

Everyone in the Big Ten has a tough schedule this year, and a number of the marquee games have been backlogged, meaning that the top teams play each other quite a bit over the final month and a half of conference season.

Indiana’s may be the toughest simply because they have yet to play a difficult road game. Five of their last nine games are away from Bloomington. Those five road trips: at Illinois, at No. 11 Ohio State, at No. 13 Michigan State, at No. 23 Minnesota and at No. 1 Michigan. That doesn’t include their home game against the Buckeyes five days before the rematch with the Wolverines.

If the Hoosiers go 4-2 in those six games, I would be impressed. If I was a betting man, I’d be wagering on the Hoosiers going 3-3 during that stretch, point being that Indiana isn’t going to make it through the rest of conference season unscathed. Digging themselves a one game hole behind Michigan — even considering the fact that the Wolverines’ next three games are Ohio State, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State — would make an outright title a tough feat to accomplish.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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