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Hayden Goethe, Published November 11 2012

Bison preparing for Hoosiers star Zeller

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – In preparing to face the nation’s best big man, the North Dakota State men’s basketball team is getting a running start – literally.

The Indiana Hoosiers host the Bison at 6 p.m. today, and the nation’s No. 1-ranked team looked every bit the part in a 97-54 victory against Bryant (R.I.) in the season opener Friday night.

Indiana is led by Cody Zeller, named the preseason player of the year by a number of media outlets, including The Sporting News.

“I’ve never seen a 7-footer run the court like he does,” NDSU head coach Saul Phillips said during the team’s shootaround in Assembly Hall on Sunday night. “It’s unbelievable. … There’s no one like him in college basketball.”

Phillips admits that his team’s post players can’t match up with Zeller’s speed.

In practice leading into tonight’s game, the Bison (1-0) have run 5-on-5 scrimmages on one half of the court, and placed a sixth player for the defending team – usually backup 6-foot-8 forward Dexter Werner – at midcourt. When the defense would get the ball after a missed bucket, Werner entered the scrimmage to replace the center defending below the basket, giving him a running start from halfcourt against the opposing post players in transition.

Phillips has placed an emphasis on having his guards try to slow Zeller down in transition – or Werner in the scrimmages – by using the drill.

“He can sprint,” said Bison forward Marshall Bjorklund, who will likely open the game defending Zeller. “He’s even leaking out sometimes like a guard would do. He runs the court very well and he rebounds very well.”

It’s a unique opportunity for Bjorklund, who at 6-foot-8, is giving up four inches to Zeller. But he says despite the challenge posed by Zeller and the No. 1-ranked team in the country, he doesn’t feel nervous.

“We’re not scared at all,” Bjorklund said. “We’re not nervous. … They are the No. 1 team in the nation, but you can’t look at it that way. If you look at it that way, it probably won’t end up well for you. So we’re just looking at it as another game.”

Phillips said when you have players like Zeller and 6-foot-9 teammate Christian Watford – who each had double-doubles against Bryant – returning to Indiana this season rather than going to the NBA, there is only one goal in mind.

“Both Zeller and Watford could have come out last year and got drafted,” Phillips said. “They both had their minds on something bigger, probably a national championship. So they present some problems. There’s a good chemistry between them.”

Last season, the Hoosiers won 27 games before losing in the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. They return their top five scorers from a year ago, led by Zeller’s 15.6 scoring average.

Zeller had 18 points in just 27 minutes on Friday.

“Once we get going, if anyone is a little nervous,” Bjorklund said, “after the first couple of minutes they’ll get it out of their system.”

Readers can reach Forum Assistant Sports Editor

Hayden Goethe at (701) 241-5558