Tipoff: Indiana at Michigan State, 7 p.m. Tuesday
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BLOOMINGTON -- Cody Zeller is ready for this.
Indiana's sophomore forward has no choice.
The top-ranked Hoosiers go to No. 8 Michigan State on Tuesday night to battle for Big Ten supremacy and the college basketball world will be on alert. Somebody is gonna get rocked. Blood might flow. Tempers could flare. Michigan State's mammoth big man Derrick Nix promised a “bloodbath” to mlive.com, a Michigan Internet sports publication.
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Zeller will be at the center of it. He won't be alone, of course. Forward Christian Watford will join him in the paint where the meek have no business and the aggressive have a chance.
Still, Zeller is the focal point. He'll get hit. He always gets hit. That's life for a Big Ten big man. The better you are, the more attention you draw, the more punishment you take.
Zeller is fine with that.
“Playing in the Big Ten, I kind of signed up for it. I accept it.”
The 7-foot Zeller has bought into the lift-hard-and-eat-well necessity that lightens the physical load. He arrived in Bloomington at a lean 215 pounds. Less than two years later, he's listed at 240.
“Especially in the summer with the weight I put on, and the extra strength I gained, it helps me deal with it better,” he said. “It is a long season. Everyone kind of beats up on big guys. I can last longer than last year. Every game is physical, but I feel my body is holding up pretty well.”
Coach Tom Crean said Zeller drew nine fouls against Nebraska last week, and that's just the stuff that was called.
“I don't get on the soap box and talk about how much he's getting fouled and how physical the league is,” Crean said, “but he's earning his keep when it comes to the foul line. He works very hard to be in position to not foul and to get fouled.”
Zeller's game has evolved to where he'll spend time on the perimeter. He'll test the range of Spartan big men Adreian Payne (6-10, 240 pounds) and Nix (6-9, 270). And if that's not enough, Michigan State can also try Alex Gauna (6-9, 245), Matt Costello (6-9, 245), Kenny Kaminski (6-8, 240) and even Branden Dawson (6-6, 230).
“I never view Cody as a center,” Crean said. “I don't know if we have a center. He can do so many things away from the post. He gets fouled on the post, but he's also getting fouled on the perimeter. That will continue to go up. He'll be on the perimeter more and more.”
The Breslin Center is where Zeller got his true college baptism of fire. As a freshman, he'd never experienced anything like the physical nature of Michigan State and it showed in his four-point, three-rebound, four-foul performance.
The Assembly Hall rematch -- 18 points, four rebounds -- showed how much he'd learned and grown, and that hasn't stopped, although criticism has surfaced. Zeller began the season as the national player of the year favorite, but much of that talk is gone. Zeller has fallen behind such players as Michigan's Trey Burke, Duke's Mason Plumlee, Creighton's Doug McDermott and even injured Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel.
Crean has a problem with that. He sees Zeller playing to the hype. Zeller is better this year in scoring (16.6 to 15.6), rebounding (8.2 to 6.6) and free throw attempts (7.3 a game to 6.0), and all the intangibles that affect games.
“His free throws are way up,” Crean said. “Everything is way up. That gets over shadowed because of the scrutiny he gets. His numbers are eye popping to me.
“I look at his improvement on things that really matter -- percentages, attempts, offensive rebounds.
“When you have a guy that gets that kind of attention and deserves that attention, you have to do as much as you can through him and with him to help him make the game easier for everybody else. That's what he does.”
As far as Tuesday's game, nothing will be easy. IU is 23-3. The last time it was 20 games over .500 was in 1992. Michigan State is 22-4 and is 5-0 since a 75-70 loss at Indiana. Both teams are 11-2 in Big Ten play. They are two games ahead of the rugged conference pack.
If IU wins in the Breslin Center to complete the season sweep, it will have, in essence, a two-game lead in the conference race. That might be just the edge it needs for a Big Ten championship and a conference tourney No. 1 seed.
Indiana's last conference title came in 2002. It has never been a Big Ten tourney No. 1 seed.
The Hoosiers will need maximum effort from everyone, and that includes guard Victor Oladipo. He hurt his ankle in the first half of Saturday's win over Purdue. He didn't play in the second half, but all indications are he'll be fine for Tuesday.
It's a big game, but not the last one. And Zeller, as much as anymore, perhaps more than anyone, will have a pivotal role.
If that means getting rough, he's more than ready.