Indiana vs. Minnesota: How to Negate the Talented Mr. Zeller

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Indiana vs. Minnesota: How to Negate the Talented Mr. Zeller
USA TODAY Sports

Cody Zeller wasn't what we want him to be again on Tuesday night in Indiana's 77-73 loss at Minnesota. 

Big Handsome was a big non-factor, in fact his play actually hurt the Hoosiers. He made just 2-of-9 field goal attempts and had four turnovers to go along with his nine points. 

Zeller, the preseason player of the year, is expected to be consistently dominant, and the accepted criticism of his game is that he disappears too often in these moments and needs to demand the ball. If the Hoosiers got their usual production from the big man, they would have likely overcome what was their worst defensive game efficiency-wise all season—the Gophers scored 1.21 points per possession—and a poor rebounding effort that saw the Gophers grab 23 offensive rebounds. 

Defensive rebounding is not really a new issue for the Hoosiers. They rank 11th in Big Ten play in that category and they were playing the top offensive rebounding team in the country. Their field goal percentage defense (38.4 percent this season) is good enough to overcome that deficiency and should be going forward, so rebounding should not suddenly become a huge concern. 

But you'll be hard-pressed to find any IU fan who is not slightly concerned about the disappearing act of the talented Mr. Zeller. The Hoosiers need Zeller to be a presence to be the best team in the country and win the national title. 

The one thing that could stop that from happening is a team that is able to slow down Zeller similar to how the Gophers pulled it off. 

Minnesota did what only a few Big Ten teams have been able to do this year and that's take away Zeller's easy looks. Zeller's quickness typically allows him to get a lot of easy buckets whether it's in transition or when the Hoosiers are able to give him an opportunity to drive in open space in the half court set.

The start of the Gophers' plan was making sure that their big men hustled back on defense and never allowed Zeller to get ahead of the defense. He had only one transition opportunity, which was one of his two baskets. 

The key in the half court is to make Zeller try to score over length. The Gophers did their work early by pushing Zeller off his spots. Watch here as Zeller catches the ball away from the block and when he cannot get past Trevor Mbakwe's hip with his dribble, he settles for a contested fadeaway

The Gophers also worked collectively away from the ball to take away Zeller's angles, which are often created by screens set by the big man. The Hoosiers want to get Zeller the ball with space in front of him, and this is one way they do it effectively.

Watch in this clip as Zeller sets several screens, but the Gophers always make sure to have a defender between him and the basket. 

Zeller had three of his shots blocked and two of the three blocks were by the primary defender who had done a good job of putting himself between the basket and Zeller. The other was an amazing effort by Mbakwe coming over to help. 

Rodney Williams utilized his quick feet and jumping ability to block Zeller's shot right out of his hand. Watch how Williams makes sure to keep his chest in front of Zeller as he makes his move and Williams' positioning allows him to block the shot.

One of the best moves Zeller made in the game was on a shot that Elliott Eliason was able to block. Zeller uses his quickness to get a step on Eliason, but Eliason does a great job of hustling to get back in front of Zeller as soon as he goes up. 

Here's the Mbakwe block, which was a great individual effort wiping out good offense.

The one underlying theme in all of Indiana's four losses now is some sort of disappearing act by Zeller.

  • Zeller did not make a field goal in the second half against Butler. 
  • His line in a loss to Wisconsin was impressive—23 points on 9-of-15 shooting—but that was all done in the first half when he made his first eight shots and IU led by one at the half. In the second half, Zeller went 1-for-7 as Wisconsin's bigs, similar to Minnesota, made Zeller take contested shots. 
  • In a loss at Illinois, Zeller took only six shots. He threw down a dunk with 5:13 that put Indiana up eight, and after that, he did not get another shot attempt. 

How does your star not get a touch down the stretch of a close game? 

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That's the frustration when it comes to Zeller. Sometimes it's on Tom Crean as much as it is on IU's star. Crean has to run sets to get Zeller in his spots and going toward the rim. Crean did not do enough of that on Tuesday and when he did, the Gophers did a great job of crowding Zeller

This was a case of a team focusing on slowing IU's star and actually executing the plan, so give the Gophers credit. 

The Hoosiers were almost good enough to still win and that's why this team should still be considered the best in the country. They are much more than Zeller and still managed to have a solid night on the offensive end without his output. They simply lost a game on the road to a talented team with a ton of motivation. 

But had Zeller been dominant, the Hoosiers' offense is almost too good to lose even when they get pounded on the boards. 

All advanced stats used in this piece come from KenPom.com.

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