ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Along with the status of the regular season Big Ten title, Sunday’s game pitting No. 2 IU against No. 7 Michigan was supposed to settle the Big Ten and National Player of the Year debates.
Junior guard Victor Oladipo and Michigan’s Trey Burke had been towards the top of lists all around the country coming into the teams’ regular season finale in Ann Arbor.
Oladipo posted a career-high 13 rebounds to go along with 14 points for his second-career double-double. Burke put up 20 points on 5-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc.
Yet to Oladipo, the rest of the country will be crazy if they don’t give the player of the year award to his teammate, sophomore forward Cody Zeller, whose six points in the final 41 seconds Sunday at the Crisler Center boosted IU past Michigan for a 72-71 victory, sealing the outright regular season Big Ten title for the first time since 1993.
“I’ve been saying all year long he should be the player of the year,” Oladipo said. “If y’all don’t give it to him, there’s something wrong with you.”
But it took a while for Zeller to get going early. The 7-foot forward missed his first four shots as he and the rest of his teammates struggled to get the bounces early on, missing 14 layups in the first half. Oladipo pulled down four offensive rebounds in the first half, but the Hoosiers weren’t quite getting the rolls they needed.
After managing an early 10-3 fueled by two early 3-pointers from senior guard Jordan Hulls, the Wolverines took off on a 12-0 run that lasted 4:22. The Hoosiers took a seven-point lead into the first media timeout, and it wouldn’t be until after the second one that they would score again.
In all, IU scored just six points in 11:39, but Michigan wasn’t exactly shooting lights out to build a lead that reached as many as 11 points – tying IU’s largest deficit this season.
But Michigan finished the first half making just two of the its final six shots, and seven points from Zeller in the final 3:22 of the half pulled the Hoosiers within three, 33-30.
Zeller scored three more points in the first minute of the second half, and another 3-pointer from Hulls gave IU its first lead since the 13:31 mark in the first half.
3-pointers would play a major role for both teams in the second half, as Michigan hit 7-of-12 from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes and the Hoosiers were 4-of-10.
Glenn Robinson III, Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. each hit 3-pointers during a 9-2 Michigan run to take a six point lead with 15:22 left, its largest lead of the second half.
After shooting 0-of-8 in the first half to go along with three turnovers and three fouls, IU’s bench, highlighted by junior forward Will Sheehey and freshman forward Jeremy Hollowell, found its offensive rhythm it lacked in the first half.
The pair scored 10 consecutive IU points, including 3-pointers from both, and it seemed that IU had stolen the thunder of the neon yellow-clad Crisler Center crowd.
The Hoosiers led by as many as four after freshman guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell hit a jumper with 9:10 to go, but as the lead swung back and forth, neither team gained total control.
That was, until Burke tied the game at 66 with 2:12 left.
Hulls responded with a missed 3-pointer. Ferrell threw the ball out of bounds. Zeller was called for traveling.
After buckets from Jordan Morgan and Hardaway Jr., IU was down four with 1:03 to go and the Hoosiers hung their heads going to into the team huddle after Michigan called its final timeout.
But just as they did in the closing minutes of the first half, the Wolverines couldn’t keep their momentum going. Senior forward Christian Watford put a hard foul on Robinson III after he sunk behind the IU defense during an inbounds play and drove to the basket.
The hard foul was worth it though, as Robinson III missed the first of two free throws, giving the Hoosiers a fighting chance.
Rather than Oladipo, as he did down the stretch in East Lansing, Mich. several weeks ago against Michigan State, it was instead Zeller, a player who may have fallen out of the player of the year race, who helped seal the outright Big Ten title in the final minutes.
Even down five points, Crean said his players had the experience of close games down the stretch this season, and they knew that Zeller would be there when they needed him most.
“Nobody thought we were out of time,” Crean said. “They had to miss a couple shots to help you out, but I mean, nobody felt like we weren’t going to come down and make plays.
“They stayed committed to what was working. No one got into a ‘I’ve got to win this myself’ and they knew that No. 40 was impossible to guard tonight.”
Zeller followed with a quick bucket off his own miss, and Hardaway Jr. missed the front end of a 1-and-1 moments later. The Hoosiers were now down only three.
After Zeller hit two pressure-packed free throws, Burke had two chances to keep his team in the driver’s seat, but Oladipo’s tenacious defense throughout the game may have drained him just a bit too much in the game’s final minute.
“I was just trying to get him tired and slow him down a little bit,” Oladipo said. “He’s a phenomenal player, as you guys can tell. He made tough shots, but maybe he didn’t have the legs to hit that final free throw at the end. Who knows.”
Burke clanked the first attempt in a 1-and-1, and Zeller followed with another basket to take a 72-71 lead.
Burke took the inbounds pass with 14 seconds left and drove the length of the court and put up a layup that rimmed out.
Morgan managed to grab the offensive rebound and flipped in the put back. The ball seemed to stop for a moment on the rim, only to fall off, as Watford pulled down the rebound to clinch the victory and the outright Big Ten title.
The Hoosiers finally got the roll they needed.
“I’m kind of speechless,” Oladipo said. “It’s been a crazy ride. We’ve had our share of ups and downs, but this team comes together when we really need to. I’d so proud of my teammates.”
After the final seconds ticked off the clock, Oladipo shared a moment on the court. The junior said he hadn’t felt like he’d played up to his potential his last few games, and Crean reassured him of how great a player he truly was.
After the game, Crean wouldn’t give a definitive opinion on the player of the year race, but like Oladipo, he said Zeller deserved more credit than he’s been getting lately.
Through the pressure of being named the preseason player of the year by media all over the country, Zeller has emerged as one of the best players in IU history, Crean said.
“I look at some of these teams that are starting to come out, and there he is on the third team, and I’m not even quite sure what anybody could possibly be remotely thinking about that,” Crean said. “That is one of the best players that’s going to come through Indiana, no matter what.
“No matter how long we have him, he’s one of the best players, not to mention best people, but one of the best players that’s ever going to come through here.”