Front & Center: Great Heights

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Editor’s Note: The Sporting News has named Cody Zeller the 2012-13 NCAA basketball preseason Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. The publication ranks his Indiana Hoosiers the No. 1 team in the nation as well. This past season, Zeller was the co-Big Ten freshman of the year, helping IU to a Sweet Sixteen showing in the NCAA tournament. Here, our November 2011 prelude to his success:

As the giants of the IU men’s basketball team spill out of a workout room on the Bloomington campus, one athlete stands out from the rest. Sure, Cody Zeller is almost 7 feet tall—huge, even in this company. But most noticeably, among the stone-faced men, he seems to be the only one smiling.

The semester has barely begun, and the freshman power forward already carries expectations that would worry most 18-year-olds. As the school’s most highly touted recruit in years, Zeller will—reasonably or not—be expected to turn around a program that has sunk to the bottom of the Big Ten. His brothers Tyler (a star senior at North Carolina) and Luke (who plays for the NBA’s development league) invite constant comparisons.

But judging by the goofy grin on Cody Zeller’s face, he isn’t exactly troubled. At Washington High School in Southern Indiana, he was known as much for his pranks as for his prowess in the paint. “Cody was definitely the joker on the team,” says Gene Miller, his former coach.  “His mom happens to be my secretary, and he would take things from her desk and put them up high, just out of reach.”

Over the summer, Zeller’s tweets (“Thank you IU groundskeepers for cutting off the low limb near Ashton. I was about to put a caution sign on it for all the other 7 footers”) entertained a class that’s just starting to recognize him. “They’re putting it together,” he says. “I don’t exactly blend in.”

As basketball season begins this month, Zeller—ranked 15th in the nation among freshmen by Rivals.com—will need to stand out. But don’t expect the happy-go-lucky teenager to take any of it too seriously. At a freshman rally in Assembly Hall the first week of classes, Zeller addressed a full house. No doubt, many of the students came hungry for 20-win predictions. But Zeller gave them only his carefree smile and a vague pro-mise. “I told them it’s going to be an exciting year,” he says. Hoosiers fans certainly hope so.

Photo by AJ Mast.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.

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