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Ben Smith

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Indiana
vs. Michigan State
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
TV: CBS
Radio: 1250 AM, 102.7 FM
Associated Press
Indiana’s Cody Zeller scored just two points Wednesday against Penn State, a 72-49 Hoosiers victory.

Zeller’s off night no reason for IU Nation to panic

– The Big Handsome left a big handsome door wide open, vanishing like that. Two points and eight boards? At home? Against winless-in-the-Big Ten Penn State?

And so Wednesday night the door swung open and in wafted a hint of unease – because, listen, there is always unease when you’ve gone from bad to really good in the space of two years. There stood BH, aka Cody Zeller, allegedly unmasked. Eyebrows were hoisted, brows were furrowed, media types did what media types do.

“Cody did a lot of other things to impact the game and that’s why he’s such a great player,” Victor Oladipo said when asked about Zeller’s off game. “He might be having a slow night on offense, but he’s doing what it takes to win.”

I guess that makes this as good a place as any to point out that, despite Zeller’s two-and-eight night, the Hoosiers mulched the Nittany Lions, um, 72-49.

And that, um, Zeller’s two-and-eight game was preceded by 21 and 13 against Northwestern, 23 and 10 against Wisconsin and 19 and 10 against Iowa, three double-doubles in a five-game span.

And that even though it doesn’t always seem so, all of Zeller’s numbers are up from a year ago. Going into Indiana’s latest Big Ten showdown – against Michigan State, alone at the top of the conference and brandishing a six-game winning streak – Zeller is averaging 16.4 points and 8.2 rebounds, is shooting 61 percent from the field, and leads Indiana in blocks with 27 and is second in steals. And, oh, yes, the basketball team whose vibe he projects is, um, 17-2.

In other words: The Big Handsome will be fine, people. And so will Indiana.

Now, I don’t know whether the Hoosiers will send Michigan State to the curb with the recycling Sunday, or if, three days later, they’ll go to West Lafayette and drop the hammer on 10-9 Purdue. It is Purdue, after all, and it is Mackey Arena. And if going to Assembly Hall is the metaphoric equivalent of crawling 1,000 yards on your belly through barbed wire, then Mackey is the machine gun nest that waits at the end of it.

What I do know is there’s not a great deal of import you can attach to it either way, considering what the Big Ten, specifically, and college basketball, generally, has become this year. Import is for March, when all this gets settled. Now is just about getting there.

Indiana will get there, but not likely in one piece. If the Hoosiers survive the Big Ten with fewer than four conference losses, Tom Crean’s the coach of the year. If anyone in the country comes to March with fewer than three losses, that coach will have to arm-wrestle Crean for the trophy.

That’s because there’s parity like never before in college basketball, for a smorgasbord of reasons. The consequence is that being ranked No. 1 is as transient these days as checking a book out of library. You get to keep it for a week or so, and then Miami skewers you by 27 (Yoo-hoo, Duke!) and the library hands it off to the next sap.

And so if you’re Crean, you don’t talk about Zeller’s two-and-eight night. You talk about pass deflections and defensive positioning and rebounding. You talk about all those effort deals you can control – because this year especially, you can’t control anything else.

“Right now, the biggest thing we can work on is making sure that we are getting better as individual defenders, collective defenders, that our rebounding continues to improve, and that we keep turning defense into offense,” Crean said the other night. “The bottom line is that you’ve got to be able to defend.

“It’s a hard league. You don’t have the best league in the country on one end of the floor. You’ve got to not only be able to score but to guard people in this league.”

And whatever happens after that, happens.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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