BLOOMINGTON — For much of Indiana’s 75-70 victory against Michigan State on Saturday at Assembly Hall, Hoosiers’ center Cody Zeller was content to allow Victor Oladipo to rule the arena.
But in the final two minutes, even Oladipo needed some help.
Zeller, who was having a tough day against the Spartans’ wide bodies, finally came to life.
Holding the ball at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down and Indiana nursing a 72-70 lead, Zeller showed why he is arguably the best big man in college basketball.
Zeller drove right down the middle, blowing past Michigan State’s Derrick Nix, and laying the ball in the basket for a 74-70 lead with 1:38 left.
When Zeller hit the shot, Indiana point guard “Yogi” Ferrell headed toward the other end of the court, a big smile on his face.
“We always try to go to him toward the end of a game,” Ferrell said. “We know he can finish for us.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean seconded that thought.
“It was winning time and Cody answered the bell,” Crean said. “He rang the bell. That’s where his mental toughness is. It is never not there.
“He is a high-level player. He was 30 feet away and drove it in there left handed. There are so many areas where he is scratching the surface.”
Michigan State tried to answer back at the other end, but guard Gary Harris, who already had dropped five 3-pointers and finished with 21 points, couldn’t connect on an open 3-point shot from the corner. Zeller, who finished with nine points and seven rebounds, plucked the rebound off the glass.
After Oladipo missed a drive on the ensuing possession, Zeller came up big again, this time drawing an offensive foul as Michigan State center Adreian Payne (18 points, nine rebounds) came flying toward the rim, running over Zeller in the process. With 14.3 seconds remaining, Indiana (6-1 Big Ten, 18-2 overall) had the win locked up, along with at least a share of first place. Michigan State fell to 6-2, 17-4.
“People say that (Zeller) has had a bad game or a couple bad games for us, but he has been playing phenomenal for us,” Oladipo said. “He is 7-foot, but he doesn’t play like it.”
Oladipo was asked if it was unusual to see a 7-footer dribble through the paint and attack the basket. “It’s not freaky stuff,” Oladipo said. “We see it every day.”
Opponents are seeing Player of the Year type numbers from Oladipo every game. He put up a season-high 21 points, seven rebounds and a career-high six steals.
“He is a great example of the old, boring statement of daily improvement,” Crean said of Oladipo. “I’ve never seen a day where he wasn’t doing something extra.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was equally impressed.
“I’m impressed with Indiana overall,” he said. “But Oladipo just plays so hard. He’s the Ray Lewis of college basketball.”
For Oladipo, it’s been a natural progression since his freshman season. “There’s a lot of things,” Oladipo said about his ability to perform in the game now as opposed to the start of his collegiate career. “Impact the game at both ends of the floor at a high level, and that sums it up right there. My freshman year I wanted to, but I wasn’t capable.”
Oladipo had four steals in the first half, which fed the Hoosiers’ transition game and led to a 44-38 halftime lead.
“He made a tremendous difference,” Crean said of Oladipo. “From the start of the game, we asked him to do a lot of different things and guard a lot of different people. He is getting a knowledge base now to go with his athleticism.
“We knew Michigan State was really good. If they were a football team, they would be one of those teams that is so balanced with its inside scoring and its outside scoring.
“It was a physical game, a hard-nosed game, a high-level game. You have to be in some fights. You have to find a way.”