PORTLAND, Ore. — Cody Zeller was asked on Wednesday if he was nervous to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
His reply? Excited to be here, but not nervous at all.
Maybe it’s having two older brothers who have been here before or just the remarkable poise he possesses for a 19-year old, but IU’s star freshman showed no nerves.
He delivered his most well-rounded game statistically of the season with 14 points, six rebounds, six steals and four assists in the Hoosiers’ 79-66 second round win over New Mexico State.
The six steals by Zeller tied an IU NCAA Tournament record set by Quinn Buckner in the 1976 national championship game.
“I felt like I was quicker than their big guys,” Zeller said. “They were probably a little bit stronger, but I was trying to use my quickness when they were passing inside and tried to get some deflections.”
Deflections have been talked about frequently this season by Tom Crean as a measuring stick for how active the Hoosiers are defensively and Crean was more impressed by Zeller’s 14 deflections than the six steals.
“We’re always looking for those double-double, triple-double numbers with the deflections, because it’s just such a key to your defensive transition,” Crean said.
Hoosiers neutralize Aggies on the glass and at the foul line
Two major statistical storylines entering Thursday’s game were New Mexico State’s ability to pound the offensive glass and get to the foul line.
The Aggies came in leading the country in free throw rate (52.8 percent) and were fourth in offensive rebounding percentage (40.8). They failed to approach either mark with a free throw rate of 20.8 percent and an offensive rebounding percentage of just 33.3.
Verdell Jones had waited four years for this moment.
As Indiana was about to be selected to its first NCAA tournament in the Tom Crean era, Jones was all smiles. The senior guard sat in the front row of chairs surrounding the projection screen in the Memorial Stadium’s Henke Hall of Champions, celebrating with teammates that are about to experience something he never will.
Jones won’t get to play in the Big Dance because of a torn ACL injury he suffered against Penn State in last week’s Big Ten Tournament. If he’s feeling sorry for himself, though, he sure isn’t showing it. Jones knows what this moment means for the program and, even though he won’t get to play, he understands the role he’s played in getting Indiana back where it belongs.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Jones said. “I’m happy for our team and all we accomplished to get to this point, but at the same time my heart’s a little saddened because I won’t get to participate in it.”
Jones will be with the team when the 4-seeded Hoosiers travel to Portland to play No. 13 seed New Mexico State on Thursday at approximately 9:45 ET. Most prognosticators had the Hoosiers as a 4-seed, so Indiana coach Tom Crean and his players weren’t overly surprised by the announcement.
Before the season started, the announcement would have been much more surprising. Few projected the Hoosiers to even make the tournament, much less as a top 4 seed.
After a three-year hiatus, Crean said it’s special to get back to the postseason.
“It’s a big deal to have this day,” he said. “When you coach and when you come into Indiana, this day is a really important day but a day everybody got used to. My family got used to this day. And then this day goes away for different reasons, and you can’t ever lose belief that you’re gonna get back to it. We never did.”
Coach Tom Crean met with the media this evening to discuss Indiana’s draw in the NCAA Tournament — Thursday against No. 13 seed New Mexico State in Portland, Ore. — and more. Watch the video in the embedded media player below:
The facial expressions were long in the Indiana locker room following the Hoosiers’ 79-71 loss to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Big Ten Tournament.
IU expected to beat the Badgers for the first time since 2007 after winning their previous five games by an average of 16.2 points.
Disappointment was the natural way to react.
But buried underneath the emotion of the loss they’d experienced just minutes earlier were words of optimism from a team that’s a lock to be selected for the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s why we all came here. It’s why we all fought through the ups and downs,” Indiana guard Matt Roth said. “A lot of good things happened to us this year. We were able to face the adversity that came about and we really handled it well.”
The adversity Roth speaks of pops up over the course of the season in programs across the country. The difference in this turnaround season for Indiana is that the Hoosiers, as Roth said, have met the adversity each time and improved on the other side of it.
After losing five of seven games from Jan. 12 to Feb. 1, Indiana rattled off eight wins in its final ten games.
In the previous three seasons, losses snowballed in February and the Hoosiers met the finish line of their season in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
“Obviously three years of being in this locker room and the season’s over, it’s a different change,” Indiana forward Tom Pritchard said. “We’ve just gotta keep building on what we’re doing right, correct the mistakes and get ready for the NCAA Tournament.”
The fact that we’re even talking about Indiana as a lock to make the tournament is a sign the program is ahead of schedule in its road back to national prominence.