Hoosiers' Zeller eager for 2nd college season

Hoosiers' Zeller eager for 2nd college season

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) 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.''

Quick Links

Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch


Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

WASHINGTON -- Most baseball managers try to operate in monochromatic fashion. They see one goal each day, and it only rests in those 24 hours. Some -- like Davey Martinez -- claim they don’t look at the standings in June. His standard message is to “win today” then move to tomorrow.

Human nature often runs interference on compartmentalization. It even crept up on Martinez on Sunday morning when in the midst of an answer about Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner playing daily. 

“For me, this is a big week,” Martinez said. “We have a chance to make up some ground here. I want these guys readily available to play.”

He’s right. The claim of significance is valid for once in mid-June, not a concept drummed up by overzealous television promos or interminable Internet space. 

The Nationals have seven games in seven days against two teams near the top of the division. Damaged Philadelphia arrives Monday. The Phillies’ bullpen is hurting and ineffective. Bryce Harper could miss the All-Star Game for just the second time in his career. Philadelphia is 6-8 in June. Meanwhile, Atlanta is rolling along. Its lineup remains deep, the pitching functional and Dallas Keuchel set to make his debut here in D.C. next weekend. The Braves hold a 2 ½-game lead in the not-so-great National League East. 

“Not thinking too big picture,” Adam Eaton said. “But knowing we have an in-division rivalry, we’ve got to win those games. It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games. Play good baseball and not beat ourselves. If we play the brand of baseball we know how to play, and play clean, we have a good chance.”

Washington is five games under .500. Days are clicking off the calendar. Departing along with them are opportunities to chop at an 8 1/2-game deficit in the division. Following this week, only seven games against Philadelphia remain. However, 13 with Atlanta remain on the schedule, including seven in 10 days in September. The question is if those will matter. Sink this week and they won’t. Pull off a deficit-halving six of seven and everything changes. 

This week’s ramifications will first be felt on the phone lines in a month. The non-waiver trade deadline arrives July 31. Drag back to a double-digit deficit this week and plunk down the “for sale” sign. Rocket through the week and perhaps reinforcements will be found.

Monday brings a dreaded series opener. The Nationals are 6-17 in the first games of series this season. No one knows why. It doesn’t make sense. But, here they are, incapable of winning a first game and constantly playing from behind.

Patrick Corbin will be on the mound attempting to counter the trend. He, like the team when a new opponent shows up, has been in arrears the last three games. Corbin’s ERA dipped to 2.85 following a 116-pitch shutout of Miami on May 25. He’s been bludgeoned since. His ERA is up to 4.11, he will start twice this week, and the Nationals need him to right his ills.

Friday, Corbin threw a bullpen session focused on his line to the plate. Pitching coach Paul Menhart describes what they are trying to accomplish to get Corbin back to the version he was earlier this season:

“His lines and his east-west motion have made it very difficult for him to get the ball to where he wants it to be,” Menhart said. “He needs to be more direct to the plate and have more of a north-south rotation with his upper body and being more stable lower-half wise will allow him to do that and have his deception and hide the ball better and keep that tunnel.”

Corbin agreed. He doesn’t watch much video to cure ruts. He also doesn’t want too much information. The team’s analytics trackers have informed him his arm slot remains in a good place. He thinks his body is still in a running at a high level, dismissing any correlation between his struggles and the workload against Miami. He’s also going through the most common element of reduced success: trying not to chew on it too much.

“I think when I’m away from the field, you think about it more,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington. “You’re frustrated about it a little bit -- what the heck is going on? But when you get here, you just try to work, try to do things to get better. That’s how I approach it. I’m just looking forward to my next start on Monday going out there and trying to get back to how I know I can pitch.”

Philadelphia arrives after being thumped in Atlanta on Sunday, 15-1. Washington had the opposite day in a 15-5 win. Monday night starts a reckoning of sorts for both. The Nationals will send out their three high-end starters during the four games. Philadelphia is trying to right itself and not let the Braves get out of touch at the top of the division. So, even for the one-day-at-a-time crew, the coming seven carry significant weight, and they’re finally admitting it.



Quick Links

Capitals re-sign forward Carl Hagelin to a four-year, $11 million contract

Capitals re-sign forward Carl Hagelin to a four-year, $11 million contract

WASHINGTON — The Capitals bolstered their forward depth and its penalty kill by re-signing two-time Stanley Cup champion Carl Hagelin before he hit unrestricted free agency next month. 

Washington has officially re-signed forward Carl Hagelin to a four-year, $11 million contract extension, a move that goes a long way toward re-establishing a third line that had some openings entering the offseason. 

Hagelin, 30, was a pending unrestricted free agent. Washington acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 21 just four days before the NHL trade deadline. Hagelin played primarily on the third line – although injuries in the Stanley Cup playoffs pushed him onto the second line.

Hagelin had three goals and 11 assists in 20 regular-season games with the Capitals and became an instant staple on the penalty kill. His 47 minutes, six seconds on the PK in those 20 games were enough to rank sixth among all forwards on the team.

Traded twice last season, Hagelin had a total of five goals and 14 assists with the Capitals, Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins in 58 games. He had a sprained knee (medial collateral ligament) with Los Angeles that kept him out for 20 games.  

"[Hagelin] was a good fit,” Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said on April 26. “I thought he fit seamlessly from day one. Really liked him on the third line, the way we used him, we bumped him up obviously with the [T.J.] Oshie injury. Our PK got a lot better. Fits in well with his teammates. It's a really good fit for us, yes." 

The Penguins traded Hagelin to the Kings on Nov. 14. He was a key part of Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Stanley Cup winners in 2016 and 2017, which came at the expense of Washington in the playoffs each time. 

This was the last year of a four-year, $16 million deal that Hagelin signed with the Anaheim Ducks in 2015. He was always viewed as a likely trade chip for Los Angeles, which finished in last place in the Pacific Division and eventually flipped him to the Capitals. 

Even after the disappointing first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Hagelin said he was open to re-signing with the Capitals before he hit unrestricted free agency on July 1. His signing follows the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen on Friday. The NHL Draft is this coming weekend in Vancouver with more moves expected.   

“I liked the fact that I got a good look from the coaches,” Hagelin said on April 26 of his time with the Capitals. “I got to play with good players, I got to play in key situations. I felt comfortable here.”