- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
College basketball predictions are a sucker's racket.
Every spring, the sport undergoes massive turnover. Seniors graduate, a wave of players enter the draft, transfers transfer. But someone has to be No. 1 in the preseason, and someone has to be preseason player of the year, and soon a collective tepid educated guess -- Indiana? Cody Zeller? -- hardens into consensus. Indiana isn't one of many good teams; it is the best team in the country. Zeller isn't a preseason All-American; he is obviously the nation's best player.
After the first game of IU's Big Ten season -- a 69-65 win at Iowa on Monday in front of a boisterous Carver-Hawkeye crowd -- the former prediction might very well be true. The second prediction is looking less reliable by the day.
After all, Zeller can't be the best player in the country if he isn't even the best player on his own team.
By now, we might as well just come out and say it: Indiana's best player is small forward Victor Oladipo. In 2½ seasons in Bloomington, Oladipo has morphed from a raw athletic specimen to a defensive specialist/energy glue guy -- he became a hit with IU fans for holding his hand in front of his face after dunks at home, typically after a steal he himself created -- into a sudden, stunning, bona fide collegiate star.
His team needed him Monday afternoon, and he delivered. Oladipo finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and that only scratches the surface of his performance in a tricky true road game, the first of IU's season. What's more, it felt like every big bucket the Hoosiers made was a product of an Oladipo play, whether through fast breaks in the first half (one included a nasty open-floor crossover that put at least two Iowa defenders on concrete blocks) or an especially timely jump shot to quiet the crowd during an Hawkeyes run in the second half, or on the simple and brutally effective clear-outs Tom Crean runs for Oladipo so frequently.
When Indiana really needs a bucket, when it really wants to stop an opponent's run, the ball doesn't go inside. It goes to Oladipo. And everybody gets out of the way.
I poked fun at the simplicity of this idea during the game, but your thoughts on his decision to play so much zone at Iowa aside, Crean's a pretty smart guy, and he doesn't need to be to know he has every reason to put the ball in his small forward's hands. After Saturday's 6-for-10 outing in Iowa City, Oladipo has made -- get this -- 73 percent of his 88 2-point field goals. In his first two seasons, Oladipo's offensive rating hovered around 106 -- decent but not great, and for Oladipo, offense was beside the point anyway. He was there to guard and leap and crash the front of the rim, and anything else was just a bonus.
This season, Oladipo's offensive rating (entering Monday's game) has skyrocketed to 127.0. His effective field goal percentage (which is weighted for 3-point attempts) of 73.0 percent was the second-best in the country; his 72.5 true shooting percentage ranked fifth. (No. 1 in both categories? Indiana guard Jordan Hulls.) In much simpler, less numerical terms: When Oladipo attacks the rim, he usually gets two points out of the transaction.
Oh, and by the way: Oladipo steals the ball 5.5 times every 100 possessions, by far the highest mark of his career to date. His offensive rebounding rate is 11.3 percent. And his defensive assignment for much of the afternoon, Iowa guard Roy Devyn Marble, finished 1-of-14 from the field.
The Hoosiers needed that defense more than anything Saturday. IU's offense is the most efficient in the country this season; where as most teams have one or two efficient go-to players, IU has at least four. But the difference between another 100-point shootout in the Sweet 16 and a team that can win a national title will come down to defense and rebounding, and the Hoosiers have improved to the point that they can hold serve against a tournament-bid-potential team such as Iowa at Iowa -- even when their 54.5 percent 3-point shooter, Hulls, goes 0-for-10 from the field. Which he did. (It was kind of stunning. I don't remember the last time Hulls missed three shots in a row. He probably doesn't, either.)
If IU really needs scoring, it can go to Hulls or Christian Watford or freshman Yogi Ferrell or efficient bench guard Remy Abell or Will Sheehey, a gluey linchpin who does a little bit of everything really well (and annoys opponents with the best of them). That balance is IU's greatest asset.
In fact, you could argue that Indiana should probably be less balanced. The most frequent complaint I hear from Hoosier fans is that Zeller doesn't get enough touches. That's not exactly true, at least relatively speaking; Zeller's 24.7 percent usage rate is the highest on the team. But because IU is so balanced and versatile, it can adjust to what defenses allow it to do, even if at times that means looking off its best asset on the low block.
And make no mistake: Zeller is still the Hoosiers' best offensive asset. Despite some bumps in the road -- notably when he was outmuscled and outplayed by Butler forward Andrew Smith in IU's lone loss -- Zeller has still been among the nation's most efficient big men, one of its best at drawing fouls and free throws, one of its best rebounders on both ends of the floor, and a vastly improved rim-protector and help defender. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds on 7-of-12 from the field Monday; that's a really nice game.
But everything is more difficult for the big man now. Teams are fronting him in the post constantly -- Iowa freshman Adam Woodbury did a creditable job in this regard -- or just playing a zone and denying him true post-ups altogether. And Zeller, a truly humble, team-first guy, has been content to play this role, to crash the glass and catch dump-offs and dunk the ball. The question is whether IU, starting with its coach and star center, can be more collectively assertive in playing through its would-be player of the year. Would more Zeller post touches be better for Indiana? Is the current balance optimal? And what about the expanded offensive repertoire we heard about so often this offseason?
The good news? Those are luxury problems, akin to preferring one private jet over another, because Oladipo has made them so. Everybody knows Cody, and he's awfully good too. But on both ends of the floor, the star of IU's season is Victor Oladipo.
In the closing moments of Monday's nail-biter, when Indiana needed a bucket to effectively seal the game, it ran a quick screen-roll-replace that got Zeller space on the right block with the perfect pivot angle to score over his left shoulder. Hulls delivered the ball, and Zeller took the obvious shot. But it was well-defended and wild, and if Iowa could corral the rebound, it would have a minute on the clock, down by just three points.
Iowa couldn't corral the rebound. Oladipo beat his man to the spot, grabbed the offensive board, fought off a defender and put it back in, giving IU a five-point lead with a minute to play.
There were other formalities to tend to, but Oladipo's play effectively ended the game. It was only fitting.