Indiana Basketball: Who's More Valuable – Cody Zeller or Victor Oladipo?

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Indiana Basketball: Who's More Valuable – Cody Zeller or Victor Oladipo?
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Zeller was one of the best college basketball players when he stepped on campus in Bloomington and not much has changed since. 

Victor Oladipo was a highlight reel waiting to happen with a name that was fun to shout and a game that had some holes. His career arc started started at a lower trajectory than did Zeller's, but he is now ascending like one of those Harbaugh brothers. 

In October, Indiana fans would have scoffed at this question: Who will be more valuable to the Hoosiers this season, Zeller or Oladipo? 

After the performance Oladipo delivered on Sunday against Michigan State (21 points, seven rebounds, six steals and three blocks), the debate is real—as is Oladipo as a legitimate Big Ten Player-of-the-Year candidate. 

Zeller, meanwhile, is in a slump—he's scored 11 points in Indiana's last two games—but he's still extremely important to IU's success.

So who is more valuable to the Hoosiers right now and going forward? 

Let's debate. 

 

Offensive impact: Zeller vs. Oladipo

Zeller is still considered Indiana's go-to guy—he uses 24.5 percent of Indiana's possessions when he's on the court compared to 22.6 percent for Oladipo, according to KenPom.com.

Both players are incredibly productive with the possessions they use. Zeller is an efficient scorer—he makes 60.5 percent of his twos—and attempts more free throws than any player in the Big Ten. 

Oladipo has always been a good player in transition, and his value has skyrocketed on the offensive end because of his improvement shooting the three—going from 20.8 percent last season to 54.8 percent this year. Oladipo's effective field goal percentage of 71.5 percent ranks second in the nation, per KenPom.com

Simply examining the offensive impact gets you close to a wash. Below is a chart that maps out the scoring averages of Zeller and Oladipo this season, per statsheet.com

As you can see, Oladipo's production has steadily increased as Zeller's has begun to gradually decline. 

Wisconsin provided a model for how to slow down Zeller, which I broke down here

In the last two games against Penn State and Michigan State, both opponents did a good job of taking away Zeller's looks. Zeller is at his best when he's able to face up and attack the basket. Indiana does a great job of getting him in a position to score by using pick-and-rolls.

The Spartans decided to take him away by going under every ball screen he set. For instance, in the final play of the first half on Sunday, Zeller set a screen for Yogi Ferrell. 

In the video below, watch as Travis Trice goes under the screen and impedes Zeller's path to the rim enough so that Matt Costello has time to recover. Defending the play this way takes away a passing lane to Zeller but allows Ferrell to shoot a wide-open three.

Taking away Oladipo is not as easy as simply adjusting your defense. The best way to limit the swingman is to keep the Hoosiers out of transition, which is done more with offense than defense. 

The Hoosiers do not need to run plays for Oladipo to get him shots. Not only has Oladipo become a good spot-up shooter, he can also create his own shot off the dribble. For example, only 38 percent of Oladipo's baskets at the rim are assisted (per Hoop-Math.com), which means he's often getting there on his own. 

It could be argued that the recent success of opponents in slowing down Zeller diminishes his value.

CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman is leaning that way. As he wrote on Sunday, the Hoosiers need more out of Zeller.

(Tom) Crean is correct when he defends his sophomore big man, saying he does all the little things that are critical to winning. But Zeller needs to do the big things. He needs to demand the basketball at times, he needs to finish through contact, he needs to display more overall toughness.

Arguing against Goodman's point, I believe Zeller's impact is still felt when defenses take him away. Look at the shot Ferrell got at the end of the half. The Hoosiers are making 41.9 percent of their threes, which ranks third nationally.

Though Penn State and Michigan State made things difficult for Zeller, IU made 11-of-20 threes against the Nittany Lions and 8-of-21 against the Spartans. The attention Zeller demands is leading to the success of his teammates. 

Also, it cannot be overlooked that when the Hoosiers needed a bucket late in Sunday's game, Zeller delivered with a strong drive to his left that put his team ahead by four with 1:38 left. That was a play Zeller made in isolation, on his own.

"It was winning time and Cody answered the bell," Crean told reporters. "He rang the bell."

Oladipo is getting to the point where he can also be called on in those late-game situations. So it's tough to say one player is needed more than the other when the Hoosiers are on offense. 

Advantage: a wash

 

Defensive impact: Zeller vs. Oladipo

Tom Izzo called Oladipo "the Ray Lewis of college basketball" in Sunday's postgame. Crean reported that Oladipo had 15 deflections in the first half and finished with 22 for the game, attributing Oladipo's impact to his film study:

We watch a lot of film as a team, but he always watches that much more...He's getting a knowledge base to go with those instincts and his talent and his athleticism and the more he does that, the better he's going to be.

Who do you think is Indiana's most valuable player?

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It is difficult to quantify the impact of Oladipo's defense. You can start by pointing out that he comes away with a steal when he's on the court on 5.2 percent of opponents' possessions, according to KenPom.com's player data

 

Oladipo is the best player in the country at turning defense into offense, which is extremely beneficial to a team like the Indiana, which thrives in transition. 

According to Hoop-Math.com, IU gets 36 percent of its initial shots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. The only team in the AP Top 10 that shoots more often in the first 10 seconds is Syracuse. The Hoosiers get 11 percent of their initial shots in the first 10 seconds of the clock off steals, which is tied with the Syracuse Orange as the best mark among teams in the AP Top 10. 

That is the impact, mostly, of Oladipo. 

Most players who come away with a steal as often as Oladipo are gamblers, often putting themselves out of position to get a steal. But watch this highlight reel (h/t theweakside) of Oladipo's defense from two games earlier this season. Oladipo plays textbook defense. He puts himself in position to make plays with his quick feet and great instincts, not by gambling. 

 

Zeller is no slouch on the defensive end and he leads the Hoosiers in rebounding. Zeller's value can be seen mostly around the rim, where he helps hold IU's opponents to 57 percent shooting, per Hoop-Math.com

That is a respectable number, considering five teams in the AP Top 10 allow opponents to shoot 60 percent-plus at the rim. 

Zeller, like Oladipo, is also a good position defender, and he took a huge charge with 14 seconds left against the Spartans that sealed the win. 

Arguing Zeller is Oladipo's equal on defense is a waste of time, however, as you would have to be crazy to not call Oladipo Indiana's defensive MVP. 

Advantage: Oladipo


In the end, the Hoosiers are lucky to have two impactful players. CBSSports.com's Goodman called Oladipo IU's MVP until this point of the season and argued that Zeller will need to assert himself more for the Hoosiers to win the title. 

Goodman is right in that Oladipo is this team's MVP. The latter point is up for debate, especially if Oladipo is bringing the value he brought on Sunday against the Spartans. 

Oladipo's offensive numbers going forward should fluctuate less because he's become an option in the halfcourt. Even when Wisconsin took away Indiana's fast-break opportunities, Oladipo still had a decent game with 10 points. 

Obviously, the impact Oladipo brings on the defensive end is what makes him one of the most dangerous players in the nation. It also makes IU one of the best teams. 

Even if you wanted to give Zeller the edge offensively, it wouldn't be enough of an advantage to offset Oladipo's defensive importance. 

That's why Oladipo is the Hoosiers' most valuable asset. 

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