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January 30, 2013

Hammons eager for Zeller matchup

Perhaps it's debatable whether Cody Zeller is Indiana's best player this season with the way Victor Oladipo has emerged.

But Zeller still leads the No. 3 Hoosiers in points (16.0) and rebounds (8.1) and is considered one of the nation's best big men.

Though Purdue freshman 7-footer A.J. Hammons doesn't hold all of those distinctions, perhaps it's debatable he's the most important piece to the Boilermakers' success. His lost minutes to foul trouble during Big Ten play seem to indicate that.

Hammons will get a chance to gauge just where he's at in his development tonight when he'll match up with Zeller, a 240-pound, 7-foot sophomore.

"I've never played against him, but it's going to be pretty good," Hammons said. "He runs the floor very well. He's very physical, rebounds, always hustling, so it's going to be a challenge to guard him.

"It'll be great, actually, to play against him. He's going to challenge me a lot. (I need to) stay down, make sure I don't foul, run the floor, make sure I'm ready, get every rebound, box him out and if everybody else does their job and I do my job, we should come out with the win."

That may be saying too much, but limiting Zeller offensively and making him defend in the post consistently certainly could help the Boilermakers' cause for the upset in Mackey Arena.

Though it won't necessarily mean victory.

In the last two games, Zeller has struggled, managing only 11 points on 2-of-11 shooting and 15 rebounds. But IU won both of those games, against lowly Penn State and then against ranked Michigan State.

Indiana coach Tom Crean said he wasn't concerned with Zeller's performance of late, saying he's mature enough not to force shots, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters after his team's loss that "to be a championship caliber team, I think they need more out of him."

Hammons' presence in the post has been a big reason Purdue's defense has improved of late, but Zeller also is athletic enough to move away from the rim. Can Hammons match up with him away from the basket?

"Cody Zeller, he's not just any 5," senior guard D.J. Byrd said. "He can dribble the ball. He can shoot the ball. He can make a one-on-one move 15 feet in. For A.J., it'll be a challenge for him, but I think he can do a good job challenging his shots, making him shoot tougher ones and just not allowing him getting easy buckets. We can't allow him to get four, five dunks and just getting easy points like that.

"So hopefully we can keep him from doing that."

Not that this matchup is only about Hammons defending Zeller. Zeller will have to try to handle Hammons in the post, too.

Though Hammons also has hit a bit of a slump offensively - scoring 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting - the last three games. He'll still be Purdue's top option to start an inside-outside game. And he's ready to show what he's got in the biggest individual matchup of his young career.

"I haven't really seen him play, but he should have a tough time," Hammons said of Zeller's defensive challenge. "He's a little quicker than me because he's more explosive and he had an extra year of college than me to be ready. He's going to attack me. I'm going to attack him, and we're going to see how it turns out in the end."

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