BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana Hoosiers won their 18th game on Sunday afternoon, yet they are a team some believe has underachieved thus far, losing to Butler down the road in Indianapolis and in Assembly Hall against an underwhelming Wisconsin team.
This is the same program that won just a dozen games two seasons ago. This is the identical program that lost 46 games during the first two years of Tom Crean's tenure in Bloomington.
There's no doubt this team is Final Four-caliber. That's why most prognosticators tabbed Indiana preseason No. 1 (we picked the Hoosiers second, behind Louisville). This team will be dangerous come March and maybe even April. It has experience, perimeter shooters, balance and depth.
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But hanging another banner (it would be the sixth in program history and first since 1987) will depend upon Cody Zeller.
Indiana is a very good team, one capable of beating a couple of top-15 teams on its home floor (i.e. Minnesota and Michigan State), but the Hoosiers can't be great without Zeller.
"To be a championship caliber-team, I think they need more out of him," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said following Sunday's loss.
Zeller was virtually invisible for much of the 75-70 victory over the 13th-ranked Spartans. 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.
I love Zeller. The kid is the ultimate team player, the highest of high-character kids. It's admirable how selfless he plays, but that's not what Crean and the Hoosiers need. They need him to be more like his teammate, Victor Oladipo, who plays with unbridled passion and intensity.
Let's face it: The Hoosiers still haven't truly been tested. They have won road games against Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern -- a trio of the league's bottom-feeders. They have beaten Michigan State and Minnesota at home, but they took down the Spartans with Zeller basically a non-factor until a late basket, just his second field goal of the game, with 1:34 remaining.
The crowd didn't chant "Co-dy Zel-ler" in the second half. Instead, the 7,000 or so students in the building were yelling, "Victor." Oladipo has been the team's MVP through the first 20 games -- and that's fine, if the Hoosiers are satisfied with just being Final Four contenders.
But Crean and this fan base want to cut down the nets come April. They will need Zeller to assert himself in order to celebrate in Atlanta.
There can't be two-field-goal nights, as was the case against the Spartans, or two-point games, which is what happened the previous game against Penn State.
Indiana and Zeller are still learning how to be the hunted. It's still new after they shocked the nation a year ago by winning 27 games and making the Sweet 16. This was an important victory against a team that had won six straight and had a 6-1 mark in games decided by five points or fewer.
But this team needs Zeller to be the star -- and Oladipo to be his sidekick. Instead, it was Oladipo who scored 21 points, grabbed seven boards and had six steals in the victory. He didn't just set the tone immediately on the defensive end, but was also the most productive player on the offensive end.
"He's an energy guy and he does everything," Izzo told me after the game. "He defends, rebounds, guards just about every position and plays both ends -- and he plays within himself."
"He's right there with [Deshaun] Thomas and Trey Burke," he added. "They control the game on one end. He changes it on both ends."
Zeller came into the game averaging 16.4 points and 8.2 rebounds. Those are impressive numbers, but there are lofty expectations for him and his teammates.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Crean said of some being disappointed with an 18-2 start to the season. "I'm not concerned about it."
If there's no reason for concern, there is room for improvement. Think about it. If Indiana is this good with Zeller still not consistently showing his best, think of how dangerous it will be once he starts performing like a player-of-the-year candidate.