Big Ten Basketball: Can Cody Zeller and Deshaun Thomas Live Up to Accolade?

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistAugust 30, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 23:  Cody Zeller #40 of the Indiana Hoosiers passes against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist #14 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional Semifinal game at the Georgia Dome on March 23, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While the attention of the sports world is focused squarely on the beginning of football, the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook was otherwise occupied.

The annual publication released its 2012-13 All-America team this week, and the Big Ten has two representatives. In my opinion, one can be classified as expected, but the other may be a surprise to some (including this Ohio State writer).

Cody Zeller, Indiana’s sophomore big man who returned to school following a phenomenal freshman season, is the “expected” pick. Many preseason prognostications have the Hoosiers as the top team in the country, and Zeller’s presence in the paint is certainly a big reason why.

The other Big Ten selection is Ohio State’s forward Deshaun Thomas. Yes, the Buckeyes matchup nightmare exploded on the national consciousness last March with an outstanding NCAA tournament, but this preseason accolade still has to be considered a surprise.

Rounding out the rest of the squad are players from Creighton (Doug McDermott), Florida State (Michael Snaer), and Louisville (Peyton Siva).

The fact that the Big Ten makes up 40 percent of Blue Ribbon’s team really highlights its position as arguably the best league in America heading into the 2012-13 season.

So here’s the question. Can Cody Zeller and Deshaun Thomas live up to the preseason billing that the Blue Ribbon publication has bestowed upon them?

Feel free to argue one way or another in the comments section, but I believe both of them can and will.

Starting with Zeller, is there really any doubt that he has the potential to be the best big man in the country? He is surrounded by premium talent (Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo and other key contributors return) and will be in the national spotlight plenty this year.

Don’t underestimate that national attention factor in this. It’s part of the reason why only skill positions are ever seriously considered for the Heisman Trophy. If the nation doesn’t pay attention to you (fans and media), then there isn’t much of a chance that you are going to make a large enough impact to earn postseason accolades after the season.

But Zeller, who plays for the top ranked team in the country and a historically great program at that, doesn’t have to worry about this.

Statistically, Zeller put up 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per game during his freshman campaign. Solid numbers overall (I love the steals statistic for a big guy), but he may have to improve on those rebounding numbers if he wants to be considered among the best five in the nation come season end.

Nevertheless, I think Zeller, who will have plenty of opportunities to shine on the big stage, will fulfill his potential and the recognition he will continue to receive before the year tips off.

The more intriguing selection is Deshaun Thomas. Remember Buckeye fans, when I say I am somewhat surprised by this selection, it is not a knock on Thomas at all. He is a fantastic player and should be even better this year.

I am just a little taken aback that he is considered one of the best five players in the nation at this point by Blue Ribbon.

Despite my hesitation, I think Thomas fulfills the prediction. Jared Sullinger and William Buford are gone, and Ohio State is going to need points from somewhere.

Anyone who watched the NCAA tournament last season witnessed what a nightmare matchup Thomas can be for any defense. He is 6’7”, too big for most guards to defend, but also has the ability to drive around slower defenders off the dribble or hit a three if given too much space.

All of these weapons came together in March, and Thomas earned a spot on ESPN’s all-tournament second team.

Alright, so Thomas has all the tools necessary to be an offensive star. But the reason he will live up to Blue Ribbon’s honor will be his improved defense.

Thomas has been a liability at times on the defensive side of the ball, but Thad Matta is doing what he can to change that. In fact, he used to call Thomas “Shaun” because there was no D in his game.

However, Thomas’ defensive ability has noticeably improved as his short career has progressed. Look for that to continue, since there is typically a jump from sophomore to junior year as a player makes the transition to the realms of the upperclassmen in the “boring” aspects of the game (think rebounding and defense).

As long as Matta and defensive-stalwart Aaron Craft continue to work with Thomas on his defense, it should continue to improve.

Ultimately, especially with Sullinger and Buford gone and a number of points up for grabs in Columbus, Thomas will be an offensive star. His defense will also be serviceable enough to earn him an All-American spot.

So there you have it. I think both Big Ten players live up to this impressive preseason billing.

What do you think?