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Mutka: Amiable Cody Zeller could be even better for IU

Indianforward Cody Zeller right New Mexico center Tshilidzi Nephawe are shown during their NCAA tournament second-round college basketball gam PortlOre.

Indiana forward Cody Zeller, right, and New Mexico center Tshilidzi Nephawe are shown during their NCAA tournament second-round college basketball gam Portland, Ore., Thursday, March 15, 2012.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)

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Updated: November 30, 2012 6:24AM



Basketball coaches aren’t inclined to gush. Their narrowly scripted world revolves around erasing negatives, pointing out mistakes and guarding against complacency.

Indiana’s Tom Crean makes an exception when talking about Cody Zeller.

“I’ve run out of adjectives,” he says of the Big Ten preseason player of the year. “I really have.”

The 7-foot sophomore has that effect on basketball junkies.

It’s all in the genes. Brother Luke Zeller started the parade, charting a course to the Phoenix Suns after spending four solid years at Notre Dame and helping Washington win its first of four Class 3A Zeller-involved state titles in Indiana. Three years later Tyler crowned the Hatchets in 2008, then starred on North Carolina’s national championship team before hooking up with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cody added two more titles before joining IU’s renaissance.

The basketball family history started with grandpa Marvin Eberhard, who played for Hampton, Nebraska’s state champs in 1942. Later, his son, Al, starred at Missouri, then spent four years with the Detroit Pistons.

How could Cody possibly falter in this procession of basketball blue bloods?

Only some of the story is revealed when you crunch his rookie numbers of 15.6 points per game, 62.3 field goal percentage and 6.6 rebounds. It’s a significant part of IU’s rise from the ashes, but Crean sees beyond cold figures.

“It’s not because of all he’s done, but because of the person he is,” Crean said. “It sounds corny until you spend some time with him.”

Except for the glint in his eye and that prominent bump on his nose, Zeller doesn’t seem all that imposing in his civvies. There’s not a trace of bragging when he readily accepts the honors befalling a player of his stature.

No bulging head size mars this potential first-round draft choice.

Zeller admits the preseason recognition was not a surprise.

“It’s a great honor, but I kind of knew it was coming,” he said. “I’m enjoying the moment, but not getting bigheaded.”

His quest for improvement keeps him from growing complacent. Part of it was growing stronger.

When he matriculated to IU he weighed a mere 212. In his freshman year he tacked on another 15 pounds.

Told by significant others that he needed more strength in this most physical of conferences Zeller now tips the scales at 239.

He’s narrowed the gap, but confesses, “I’m still probably a little undersized for a big guy in the Big Ten.”

Over the summer he was tested for body fat and learned that he had packed on 91/2 pounds of muscle. Mission partly accomplished without any loss of mobility.

“It’s good weight.” Zeller smiles as if he was enjoying a private joke at the expense of those who would manhandle him this winter. His amiable disposition conceals toughness.

Poised under pressure, he can be as stoic as the Queen’s guards.

“He very rarely gets rattled,” Crean says.

Zeller’s ability to adjust on the court sets him apart.

“When you can make mental and physical adjustments quickly,” says Crean, “you’ve got a chance to be extremely special.”

Special enough to carry top-ranked IU to its first national title since 1987?

That’s an unfair question, but Zeller wouldn’t have to piggyback this team to its sixth championship.

Crean can surround him with four other returning starters — five if you count Maurice Creek, who has played only sparingly because of multiple knee problems starting in his freshman year. What does that staggering honor roll mean?

“Absolutely nothing,” says Crean, battling to keep a straight face. “We’ve got eight or nine guys who can start.”

It would have been more, but part-time regular Derrick Elston injured his knee in practice last week and required surgery.

With IU’s depth, complacency should never be an issue. Work ethic means everything to Crean and the roster is stacked with players who embrace hard work.

“Players control that,” he says. “A coach can’t.”

Stay tuned.



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