HOOSIER SCOOP SAGE TAKE OF THE DAY, Nov. 15, 2012
I perceived something steely in the persona of an Indiana men’s basketball player this week.
And, no, I’m not talking about Will Sheehey’s demeanor during Wednesday afternoon’s press conference, though that would also qualify.
This goes back to a brief little set-to during Monday’s win over North Dakota State.
IU’s Cody Zeller and NDSU’s TrayVonn Wright both latched onto a rebound of a missed 3-point attempt by Jordy Hulls and neither would let go. Zeller and Wright ended up careening toward the sideline until whistles blew and Zeller went sprawling as Wright finally released his hold on the ball with a bit of a flourish.
This sort of thing happens all the time, and it was definitely no big deal. Just two competitors having at it. Wright almost immediately came back over to Zeller, offered a hand, and made it clear that nothing unsportsmanlike had been intended. Jump ball. Possession arrow. Time to move on.
Zeller’s face barely changed expression, which is par for his on-court course.
But he had taken note.
My brother, sitting alongside me in the Assembly Hall stands, saw it, too. We agreed that before too much time elapsed, Zeller would find a way to make the Bison pay. Fully within the rules, of course.
The jump ball with Wright came with 17:44 left to play, and IU up, 44-37.
Zeller subsequently made a couple of relatively conventional buckets by his standards, a two-handed dunk and a nice up-and-under from a baseline move, but seemed almost biding his time until the proper moment arose to truly strike back with sufficient magnitude. Playing despite feeling ill Monday, he sat down for a brief rest, then re-entered at the 12:04 mark.
Here it comes, we sensed.
And we were right.
Zeller missed a tough shot inside, then tried for a steal while chasing the fast-breaking Bison up-court. He didn’t get the steal, but Victor Oladipo did, pilfering the ball in the defensive lane and out-letting to Zeller at around midcourt.
Sheehey was actually a bit ahead of Zeller on the ensuing break, with no defenders between them and the bucket. Almost any other time the team-oriented Zeller, who always seems to have his head up and is a tremendous ball-handler for a big man, would have sent the ball ahead to Sheehey, one of the team’s best dunkers.
Not this time.
Zeller wanted this particular dunk.
And with two huge strides on the dribble before liftoff, Zeller soared for a one-handed tomahawk jam.
Boom-shacka-lacka! With authority. With conviction. Take that, TrayVonn.
North Dakota State then tentatively came back upcourt, with the Assembly Hall crowd still buzzing, only to see Zeller block a shot that created another Hoosier break, this one culminating on a pull-up 3-pointer from Sheehey on the left wing that gave IU its first 20-point lead of the night, 63-43, with 10:49 left.
Take that. And that.
Game, set, match. Ohhh-va.
Zeller, on a night he probably should have been home in bed, finished with a game-high 22 points and nine boards.
There are so many things Indiana fans can and do love about Zeller and his game. To them, he will always be the player who symbolizes and epitomizes the resurrection of IU’s storied program. Off the court, they know him as a really good, really nice, really smart, fun-loving , often mischievous kid. On the court, they marvel at the splendid skill set contained within his 7-foot frame.
But there is a hard core inside him that all great competitors have, too.
Just ask Meyers Leonard, the Illinois center who found out about that in no uncertain terms last season. On his chin. Just ask any number of guys who have gone up against Zeller at various stages of his career.
Wednesday night, I watched the DVR of Monday’s game. Color commentator Darrin Horn, the former South Carolina and Western Kentucky head coach who was a Tom Crean assistant at Marquette, put it this way to the Big Ten Network audience in the immediate wake of Zeller’s tie-up with Wright:
“Cody Zeller is often talked about as being, personality-wise, very quiet and laid back. But make no mistake about it, there is a fire that burns in that young man. He’s as competitive as anybody in college basketball.
“The Bison might have just riled him up a bit.”
And the Bison paid.
They aren’t likely to be the last IU opponent to do so.