The inspiration for this piece came to me courtesy of a very good ESPNU College Basketball Podcast done this week by my colleagues Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg. Andy put a question to Seth that was so intriguing that I'm going to jump in and take a crack at it myself.
Andy's question (jump to the 15:30 mark) was this: If you had to pick just one player from Indiana to nominate for national Player of the Year, who would it be?
Right now you're thinking, duh, Cody Zeller (and that's pretty much what Seth said), but it's actually a mark of how well the Hoosiers have played as a team that Andy's question really could have multiple answers. Let's look at each member of IU's starting five, and in particular I want to consider what each player has brought to the table to make Indiana's arguably the best offense in the nation. To this point in the young season the Hoosiers have scored 802 points in just 642 possessions, and you just don't do that without some POY-level performers. (Plural.)
So, who would I nominate for national Player of the Year? Glad you asked, Andy!
1. Cody Zeller
It has to be Zeller, even though, ironically, the first time I saw him play in-person this season also happened to be the one out-and-out bad game he's had thus far. On November 19 I was courtside at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, as Indiana let Georgia hang around for the game's first 30 minutes before pulling away for a 66-53 win. The problem for the Hoosiers in that game was that Zeller was courtside too, and not on the floor. He picked up two fouls in nine minutes and sat out much of the first half. That night the seven-foot sophomore scored six points on 2-of-4 shooting and pulled down just four rebounds in 27 minutes. And, yes, just as you'd expect, Twitter overreacted shortsightedly (it's true!) and teemed with tweets that all said variations of: "Zeller for POY? Are you kidding me?"
No, I'm not kidding you. The next night I watched Zeller do what he does, scoring 17 points thanks to a season-high 13 free throw attempts in the Hoosiers' 82-72 overtime win over Georgetown. For the season he's actually leading IU in minutes -- that's unusual for a post player, and it shows just how abnormal the Georgia game really was. Tom Crean can count on his star being on the floor, and when that happens made two-point shots are sure to follow. A very high proportion of Zeller's shots occur right at the rim because both he and the system that surrounds him excel at creating those shot opportunities.
Zeller has what for lack of a better term I'd call elastic capacity. Much like Kentucky's Anthony Davis last season, he's arguably the best player in the nation on what is arguably the best team in the nation, and I can't shake the feeling that he really hasn't been challenged yet. (Even though, make no mistake, his numbers to this point in the season are suitably fantastic.) Fortunately for college hoops fans, Zeller plays in what is likely to be the best conference in the nation this season. I can't wait for him to get thrown into a tight road game at, say, Ohio State or Michigan. My hunch is we may see something pretty amazing from Zeller in such a situation, something that could put the finishing touches on a winning national POY candidacy.
From my chair the only thing to keep an eye on with Zeller is simply his free throw shooting, which at 65 percent has rather oddly fallen by 10 percentage points from where it was last season. Cody learned the incredible cumulative effectiveness of getting to the line and picking up the free points available there from his older brother Tyler, who was a career 78 percent foul shooter for North Carolina. And as a freshman Cody looked like a chip off the old Zeller block. To be sure, his misses from the line this season haven't cost the Hoosiers yet, and there's still plenty of time for him to return to form as a sophomore. But it's definitely something to note. For players named "Zeller," drawing fouls comprises an unusually large portion of their individual offense, and shooting 65 percent vs. 75 percent at the line does diminish this Zeller's effectiveness somewhat.
2. Victor Oladipo
While stopping short of saying Victor Oladipo is Indiana's best candidate for national Player of the Year, my colleague Andy did say that Oladipo "has changed the way this team plays" and that he's "the difference maker for Indiana."
I couldn't agree more. Do yourself a favor the next time you see an IU game. Watch Oladipo on defense. Above and beyond his well-documented ability to record deflections, Oladipo is a menace on D even on the rare occasions when he doesn't deflect the ball. You know how people like to talk about how disruptive Aaron Craft is on defense? A rough but useful shorthand for Oladipo would be Craft, only three inches taller.
Oops, this is supposed to be a piece on Indiana's offense. Fair enough: Oladipo's making 76 percent of his twos, an astonishing number that he's achieved by eliminating two-point jumpers from his game almost entirely. (All Division I players, take note!) You have to squint very hard to find a weakness in Oladipo's performance this season, but here's a small one. For reasons that are unclear to me, he continues to attempt one or two threes per game despite the fact that he's a career 25 percent shooter from out there. I have a suggestion as to which player should be shooting those threes instead....
3. Jordan Hulls
When I watched Indiana at the Barclays Center in November, an excited murmur would start to build the instant the IU faithful saw a pass merely headed Hulls' way. That's the kind of year he's having shooting the ball.
I alluded to this same quality in some of my comments on Michigan's Nik Stauskas last week (and still another apt Big Ten comparison here would be former Ohio State Buckeye Jon Diebler), but a player like Hulls who's currently making 52 percent of his threes is improving his team's offense about as much as is possible in the sport of basketball. And if I were Hulls I might pull Zeller and Oladipo aside: "All those shot attempts at the rim you guys are magically 'creating' for yourselves? You didn't build that." The mere presence of Hulls on the floor pulls opposing defenses out of position.
All of the above would be impressive enough, but Hulls is no mere three-point specialist. He's also a valuable combo guard who distributes the ball effectively.
4. Christian Watford
It has fallen to Watford to take on the Christian Laettner role as a player who will forever be linked to one incredible shot (one that, like Laettner's, came against Kentucky), but before, during and after that seminal event he has excelled at creating the proverbial match-up problems for opposing defenses that already have to contend with Zeller and Oladipo. Basically there aren't many players equipped to guard a 6-9 star who's most dangerous outside the arc but who also draws five fouls per 40 minutes.
Watford sports easily the widest and most varied shot distribution of any Hoosier, and this season he's making just 39 percent of his twos. The fact that he's been a net positive (and a big one) for the IU offense anyway is a testament to the power of the three-point shot and the free throw. In those spots on the floor Watford's shooting 45 and 92 percent, respectively.
5. Yogi Ferrell
Conveniently enough I offered a few thoughts on Ferrell just last week as part of my Top 25 Freshmen feature. Ferrell clocked in at No. 18 on my list, and here's what I said:
Meet this list's only pass-first point guard. On a team that already had Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, and Jordan Hulls before he arrived, Ferrell doesn't have to supply any additional scoring punch. All Ferrell has to do is facilitate and take care of the ball in Tom Crean's up-tempo offense. That's exactly what he's done.
In fact, aside from a four-turnover effort against North Dakota State, Ferrell hasn't turned the ball over more than twice in any game. (Which is fairly amazing, because to the naked eye, Ferrell often appears to leave his feet with the ball but without a clear plan. But, hey, numbers don't lie.) That, plus 89 percent foul shooting, gets you a spot in the top 25.
Ferrell's incredible streak of low-turnover games has continued, and I would only add one other point. We shouldn't underrate how impressive it is for a freshman, even one who happens to be a McDonald's All-American, to step onto the floor for the No. 1 team in the nation and play point guard so capably in November and December that his name is rarely mentioned.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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