If there is such a thing as a “Sports Illustrated jinx,” it has yet to affect Indiana’s Cody Zeller.
Zeller, who was christened the nation’s best player by SI, lived up to all the hype, as did No. 1-ranked Indiana (7-0) as a team, in an 83-59 victory against visiting North Carolina on Tuesday night.
“There are a lot of things that Cody does that I’m not sure he has any peers in the country,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean, who talked about Zeller’s ability to find open teammates with the pass while on the dead run. “He is phenomenal at finding people.”
Crean said the focus often shines on Zeller’s numbers. On Tuesday, he had 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. “People lose focus on how he makes people around him better,” Crean said.
Zeller didn’t wait to try to make his teammates better Tuesday. He handled things himself right from the start. In the first 3:08 of the game, Zeller had seven points.
“He is a load,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
Williams gave the Hoosiers the ultimate compliment after the game.
“I like watching Indiana play basketball,” Williams said. “As long as it is not against my team.”
Indiana’s team brand of basketball produced some startling numbers Tuesday that are likely to attract the nation’s attention.
The Hoosiers had 21 assists to only eight assists for the Tar Heels. They out-rebounded one of the nation’s top rebounding teams 49-42. They held North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo (10 points) to no points in the second half. They hit eight of 20 3-pointers to a 1-for-8 performance by the Tar Heels.
Defensively, Indiana simply hammered the Tar Heels, who went 3 for 25 from the floor in one stretch late in the first half and into the second half.
“Three for 25 from the floor?” Williams said. “You can’t go 3 for 25 on the road against a pretty doggone good team and expect to be very successful.”
Do the Hoosiers feel they have anything left to prove?
“We can’t be comfortable where we are at,” Zeller said. “We have to keep attacking, keep getting better, keep working hard. We are not going to get comfortable where we are at.”
Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who had 19 points against North Carolina, said his team did make a statement.
“Obviously, this program over the past couple of years has been struggling. We’ve been trying to get it back where it belongs, and that is on top,” he said.
Will Sheehey, who scored 19 points off the bench along with a terrific defensive performance against McAdoo, said the Hoosiers’ effort speaks for itself.
“We were prepared for this game,” Sheehey said. “That’s about it. You saw the score. We played hard, and we played well.”
Sheehey has been playing so well it will be interesting to see if Crean continues to bring him off the bench. Senior forward Christian Watford went 1 for 9 from the floor Tuesday but has been a force for the Hoosiers for four seasons.
“I keep saying we really have seven starters,” Crean said.
The IU coach said one of the biggest positives that came out of Tuesday’s game was that his team had 74 shots due to a great team rebounding effort and pressing the pace.
“Last year we averaged 53½ shots,” he said. “We want to be able to get those easy baskets. Our guys have bought into that.”
The Hoosiers now have three-consecutive Saturday games, starting with Coppin State at home at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by a 6 p.m. home game against Central Connecticut State on Dec. 8 and a neutral site game against Butler at 2 p.m. Dec. 15 in Indianapolis.
Crean said he expects his players to continue to play with the passion they displayed Tuesday no matter the opponent.
“I don’t think they are driven by attention,” Crean said. “I think they are driven by the kind of people they are.
“I’ve never been part of a team that was ranked No. 1 to start a season, so we all are learning together.”