Cody Zeller didn't follow his older brother, Tyler (left), to North Carolina. ROBERT WILLETT
SOMEWHERE IN THE AIR — Welcome, folks, to seat 25A on my flight from Raleigh (through Atlanta) to Indianapolis. I’ve become adept at typing like this – scrunched up, elbows stuck to my side – in recent years.
So No. 14 North Carolina plays at No. 1 Indiana tonight.
Before the Tar Heels left town last night, UNC coach Roy Williams met with media members and talked about a variety of topics. I asked him a few questions about Cody Zeller, Indiana’s sophomore forward who entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to win national player of the year honors. And, oh yes, Cody happens to be the younger brother of Tyler Zeller, who a season ago won ACC Player of the Year honors during his final year at UNC.
Given that Williams successfully recruited Tyler Zeller to North Carolina, Williams felt confident that he could do the same with Cody. I wrote about that, and more, in a story that ran today. Cody, of course, chose to remain in his home state and play at Indiana. It was a decision that changed the power structure of college basketball, and one that has been the most important factor in Indiana’s resurgence.
In the three seasons before Zeller arrived in Bloomington, the Hoosiers won a combined 28 games. There were questions about when Tom Crean, hired to rebuild the program in the wake of Kelvin Sampson’s brief scandal-marred tenure – would turn the program around, and if he would turn the program around. Indiana answered those questions last season, when Zeller helped lead the Hoosiers to 27 victories, their most since 1993.
Through the first six games of this season, Zeller is averaging 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots per game. He’s one of five Indiana players whose scoring average is in double figures. Here’s my conversation from yesterday with Williams about Zeller:
Andrew Carter: What do you remember about recruiting Cody Zeller and how much of a shot do you think you had with him?
Roy Williams: We had a shot, for sure. I mean, it went right down to the final day. We recruited him like crazy. I loved him to death. His whole career, it was very similar to Tyler’s. I mean, he was a good prospect and everybody thought he was going to be a good player. And then all of a sudden, the summer after his junior year, he just exploded.
And that’s a little bit about what Z did. I mean, we liked Z, and then the summer after his junior year, we fell in love with him. And Cody was a little bit of that same path, and the same kind of timetable is probably a better way to say it … but he’s a remarkable player, he’s got Z’s size but does some more things out on the court, probably, than Tyler does, or did for us. And maybe a little more flexibility to his game. But he is the one, but they have five guys averaging in double figures, and you guys have heard me say before that that’s the most difficult kind of team to guard. And so we can’t just load it up on Cody, because those other four guys all average in double figures, as well.
AC: You said you had a shot, how good did you feel about your chances with Cody on the final day?
RW: Well, we didn’t know until the last day that we weren’t going to get him. And most of the time I know it a heck of a lot earlier than that. So it was us, Indiana, Butler and seems like there was a fourth school … I’m not sure. But in my mind, and again, let me emphasize this, in my mind it was two schools.
AC: How would you characterize what he’s meant to Indiana’s resurgence?
RW: Well he’s been the star. The year before he gets there, they don’t win 27 games, and the year he gets there, what’d they win last year? 27 or something like that? So you just look at the numbers. I mean, those other guys are good players, but he’s the guy who makes everybody else change your defense and you have to be concerned about him and he gave them a legitimate inside scorer that can foul out the other players. I just think he’s a great player, a great player.
AC: When it comes to defending Cody, will that be more of a team effort or who do you rely on most there?
RW: Well it is a team but again, look at their stats. I mean, seriously. Five guys in double figures. I’m not going to put four guys on Cody. That just doesn’t make sense. Five guys averaging double figures. That’s the reason nobody could guard us in ’09. I mean, you had to worry about Tyler Hansbrough. But then Wayne and Danny and Ty were going to score them thee at a time. So that was an easier year for Tyler than he ever had before because he wasn’t facing two and three guys. We have to be concerned about Cody but again … the facts don’t add up that I’m going to have five guys guarding Cody Zeller. I mean, five guys, averaging double figures for them. So I’m not going to put five guys on Cody. But he is an emphasis and he would have to be the main emphasis, but we’re not designing a defense for him.
It was at this point in our back-and-forth when I asked Williams, acknowledging that he wouldn’t put five guys on one player, whether he might double-team Zeller. Williams said, “No.” Then started to say something else but didn’t, he said, because he wanted to remain respectful.
And then he said this: “I’m not going up there trying to stop Cody Zeller. I’m trying to go up there to beat Indiana.”