Early on in No. 1 IU’s only matchup of the season with Nebraska, the Hoosiers struggled to get shots to fall while the team’s big man, sophomore forward Cody Zeller, dealt with foul trouble.
The Hoosiers fell into a rhythm with Zeller on the bench late in the first half, and once Zeller caught fire midway through the second, IU broke away from the Cornhuskers for a 76-47 victory at Assembly Hall.
The Hoosiers began the game shooting 2-of-11 from the field, while Nebraska, 3-8 in the Big Ten, hit four of the team’s first five shots to take an early 8-4 lead.
The Cornhuskers were able to fend off the Hoosiers for several minutes, still leading 14-11 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
Zeller exited the game for the remainder of the half just moments later after picking up his second foul of the evening, a call he could have easily avoided, IU Coach Tom Crean said.
Zeller seemed to take advantage of his mismatch early on against Nebraska’s Andre Almeida, a 6-foot-11-inch, 314-pound center, using his speed to trip up the Cornhusker big man and forcing him into two early fouls.
Zeller, though, was just 1-for-4 in those two trips to the free throw line.
But senior forward Christian Watford said the Hoosier offense didn’t falter with the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year on the bench.
“I don’t think we feel like our style of play changed too much,” Watford said. “We kept playing basketball and getting to the foul line.”
Back-to-back 3-pointers from freshman guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell and junior guard Victor Oladipo put IU up for good as Nebraska Coach Tim Miles was forced to take a timeout with 7:11 remaining in the half.
Out of the timeout, Oladipo stole the inbound pass as IU challenged the Cornhuskers with a full-court press. Senior guard Jordan Hulls drove to the basket for a layup to boost IU’s lead to 21-14 to cap a 10-0 run.
Nebraska made two-straight buckets to come within three points before IU closed out the half with six-straight free throws to end it ahead 27-18.
Zeller started the second half on the floor, but less than three minutes into the half, he drew his third foul. IU had already broken the game wide open with a 7-0 run to begin the second half, and Crean decided his team could manage without Zeller on the floor.
“He didn’t like sitting over there,” Crean said. “He knew they were going to come after him to get his third.”
The sophomore forward sat on the bench for almost seven minutes as the IU lead crept up from 14 to 17 points.
But once Crean put his big man back into the game, Zeller seemed to refocus, and his teammates took notice.
“When Cody came in in the second half, he didn’t stop,” Watford said. “He came in and played with tremendous energy and got to the foul line and got involved.”
Zeller scored his first field goal of the game with 9:54 remaining, and in the next six minutes, he would go on to score 11 of IU’s 19 points to finish as the team’s leading scorer of the evening.
Zeller’s scoring spree included a series where he made a jumper before stalling Nebraska’s Dylan Talley near midcourt, stripping him and grabbing the steal before storming ahead for the two-handed dunk that invited a thunderous applause from the IU faithful.
He would also make three more trips to the foul line, hitting all five of his attempts, unlike his performance in the first half where he shot just 3-of-6 from the charity stripe.
Crean said after the game that teams will continue to center their game plans on how to stop Zeller at both ends, just as Nebraska was able to do for much of Wednesday night’s game. He added, though, that when Zeller fights through the pressure, he’s as good as anyone on the court.
“He’s got to stay low. He’s got to block out,” Crean said. “He’s got to have his hands active. He’s so good when he gets down and when he bends those knees even a little bit, his athleticism is off the charts. We need him to be like that constantly.”