BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Cody Zeller was the biggest reason Indiana spent last season rebounding instead of rebuilding.
This time around, he could be the difference between winning a national championship and simply being another good college team.
No, Zeller doesn't seem to mind the discussion swirling around him and this suddenly revived Hoosiers program. It's just that the soft-spoken, mild-mannered big man doesn't pay much attention to individual accolades, preseason rankings, projected awards or hype. It's just not in his DNA.
"It is pretty neat to see all that stuff, but it doesn't really matter too much," Zeller said when asked about Indiana being ranked No. 1 heading into a season for the first time in 33 years. "If the awards come at the end of the year, then I'll be pretty excited."
Guys who are this tall and this talented can easily shove aside the small things. And if he needs any advice, he always can call one of his two older brothers, Luke and Tyler, who went through similar scenarios at Notre Dame and North Carolina.
What Zeller does best is to downplay the spotlight, something that has gotten more challenging each passing year.
From the moment he emerged as a prized recruit at Washington High School in the rural southwestern part of Indiana, Hoosiers fans often entertained themselves by discussing Zeller's college choice. To help convince Zeller to come to Bloomington, they serenaded him by chanting his name at Assembly Hall. When he started college, the students who worshipped him from afar started treating him like a star.
Zeller rewarded the die-hard fans with 27 wins last season.
Now he's back, being called America's best big man and a favorite for national player of the year.
Zeller was a popular choice on those preseason magazine covers. He was chosen as the early favorite to win Big Ten player of the year and came within one vote of being the only unanimous preseason All-America choice.
Teammates aren't jealous, they're appreciative.
"It is kind of crazy how far we've come in that regard," senior guard Jordan Hulls said. "And Cody deserves all of it. He's earned it."
If Zeller keeps playing the way he did in 2011-12, he could go down as one of the best centers at one of America's most storied programs.
A year ago, he averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds. He shot 62.3 percent from the field, fourth in the nation and second in school history. He became the first Indiana player in five years to record six steals in a game, and he finished the season with 20 points and seven rebounds against eventual national champion Kentucky.
Numbers only provide a partial glimpse of what Zeller did for a program that had won only 28 games the previous three seasons as it tried to dig out of the deep hole left by an NCAA phone-call scandal.
Zeller gave Indiana its best inside presence since coach Tom Crean arrived in 2008-09, and when Zeller wasn't open, the Hoosiers usually found an open 3-point shooter because defenses were sagging on Zeller.
The combination gave Indiana increasing confidence, and by season's end, Zeller and the Hoosiers were playing like national contenders.
It was enough to spur talk about a possible jump to the NBA. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, he said no.
"Without him, we can't win it all," junior swingman Victor Oladipo said.
This year, they'll need him more than ever from Zeller, especially early given Indiana's suddenly thin front line.
On Friday, against Bryant, freshmen forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea and freshmen center Peter Jurkin will both begin NCAA-imposed nine-game suspensions for receiving improper benefits from an AAU coach with ties to Indiana. Senior forward Derek Elston also will miss the season opener after having knee surgery last month.
The bad news for opponents is Zeller is more than capable of filling any holes.
After growing one-half inch and adding 10 to 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason, Zeller is now bigger and stronger than ever. He's listed at an even 7-feet and 240 pounds.
That's not the only change.
Indiana's 2011 Mr. Basketball could be knocking down 3-pointers this season, something he did in high school. Last season, he didn't take a single 3-pointer. But Zeller worked on his long-distance shooting throughout the summer and demonstrated how good he could be by winning the long-range shooting contest at Hoosier Hysteria, Indiana's version of Midnight Madness.
"I think he's improved on everything," Crean said. "He's much stronger, his skill level has gone up and he's starting to realize he's very, very gifted, and the more he works, the better he gets."
More troubling for opponents, Zeller insists the extra weight has only made him a better player.
"That's a big part of it because I've still got to be able to move," he said. "I feel like I can move maybe even better than I did last year."
Could the Hoosiers and Zeller really be better than they were a year ago? That's what the outsiders and insiders believe.
All Zeller and his teammates can do now is prove it.
"I don't know that I have any specific goals," Zeller said. "Obviously, we want to win the national championship. We're not going to guarantee anything, we just want to play hard and see where it takes us."