IOWA CITY — Cody Zeller’s childhood memories are filled with thoughts about summertime adventures in Iowa.
The Indiana center enjoyed his grandmother’s cooking and loved being around the animals raised on his grandfather’s farm near Springville, the east-central Iowa town where both of his parents went to high school and learned to love basketball. Dozens of cousins still live in that area.
“It was a big part of growing up, going out to Iowa and spending a couple of weeks there in the summer,” Zeller said. “Good times, good family times, the stuff you don’t forget. We always lived in town, so the chance to run around on the farm for a couple of weeks every year, it was something we looked forward to.”
Zeller returns to Iowa today, where the 7-foot sophomore will play in front of family and friends as the leader of a fifth-ranked Indiana basketball team that visits the Hawkeyes in a sold-out 3 p.m. Big Ten opener for both teams.
The center has led the Hoosiers to a 12-1 start, averaging 16.4 points and leading the conference with 7.9 rebounds per game.
“Cody Zeller epitomizes so many things about our program, and No. 1 is the humble spirit he has,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “He’s confident, but he has a humbleness about him and a desire to improve.”
Zeller led the Hoosiers a year ago as they split two games with Iowa, following an 11-of-12 shooting performance in a 103-89 rout at Assembly Hall with a 15-point, 13-rebound game in a 78-66 loss to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.
That memory of his most recent visit to the state is one he has not forgotten as Indiana works toward its game with Iowa, which is 11-2 and will challenge Zeller with improved depth at the post position led by 7-1 freshman Adam Woodbury.
Despite competing in top AAU circuits before college, the pair have never met before. Woodbury, who averages 6.6 points and 5.2 rebounds for Iowa, welcomes the challenge.
“He’s a helluva player, so I need to just keep an open mind and do what the coaches tell me to do and try to outwork him,” Woodbury said. “I know he’s going to be a tough matchup like he is for everybody.”
Woodbury believes he can challenge Zeller with his physical play.
“Hopefully, I can bring a physical presence that maybe he hasn’t seen from someone out of my size and force him to try to score over the top of me, which makes it a little bit tougher,” Woodbury said.
Woodbury doesn’t expect to have to do it alone.
Zeller is part of a high-octane Indiana offense that leads the nation in scoring at 89.4 points per game. The Hoosiers are the only team in the country to have five players averaging 11 or more points.
To accomplish that, Indiana, like Iowa, prefers to push the tempo. Zeller’s ability to move well for his size has a lot to do with the Hoosiers’ success in that area.
“He’s one of the best-running big men that I’ve seen in a long time, tremendous speed,” Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery said. “Their running game is really going on all cylinders right now, and that’s an issue for us on both ends of the floor.”
Woodbury said the Hawkeyes are hearing a lot about the need to get back defensively as quick as possible.
“Zeller isn’t the only one who runs,” Woodbury said. “They’re running everybody, so getting back on defense and getting our transition set up is a big key to the game.”
McCaffery likes the depth that Iowa has available inside this season to deal with a team like Indiana.
Woodbury will start at the post, but expect Melsahn Basabe and Gabe Olaseni to rotate in as well.
“It’s a great challenge,” McCaffery said. “All of those guys are playing well right now and they all feel good about themselves, but they recognize who we are playing and they recognize the challenge before us.”