“Co-dy Zel-ler!” was the thunderous chant that rained down from the 2,000-plus strong crowd at Kilroy’s Sports Bar in Bloomington, Indiana. Zeller – the younger brother of Tyler and Luke of North Carolina and Notre Dame fame – carried the Indiana Hoosiers on his slight, 19-year old shoulders all year.Â The freshman savior’s face was getting the zoom-in treatment on every television in the house, and the raucous Hoosier nation was showering him with love. So, “Co-dy Zel-ler!” went the chant, and it was about as loud as it could have possibly been. You would have thought it was the middle of an intense game, but it was still 7:00 PM Eastern, about two hours and 45 minutes before the (scheduled) start of Indiana’s highly anticipated match-up with the hated University of Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
My younger brother is a senior at Indiana University and he’s been waiting for me to visit him since he was a freshman. Little did either of us know when I booked this trip two months ago that I’d be in Bloomington for the biggest Hoosier game in a half decade. The program had been floundering since the sudden departure of former head coach Kelvin Sampson due to recruiting violations, but new steward Tom Crean’s bunch had exceeded even the wildest expectations this season. Moderate improvement and a possible NIT berth was a reasonable projection for the Hoosiers this year, but Zeller – along with juniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, sophomores Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo and seniors Matt Roth, Tom Pritchard and the since-injured Verdell Jones III – carried the team to unexpected heights.
Indiana’s shocking and dramatic one point victory over the Wildcats earlier in the season gave the Hoosier faithful an unusual amount of confidence heading into their tilt with the nation’s best college basketball team. “Cody is gonna murder AD again tonight,” a random, drunk bar-goer screamed in my general direction about an hour before tip-off. Exaggerated euphemism aside, his statement did provide a window into what was undoubtedly seen as the key match-up in this game: Zeller against the presumptive number one overall pick in the NBA Draft, UK freshman phenom Anthony Davis.
In their previous meeting, Zeller and the Hoosiers got Davis in early foul trouble and he was limited to just 24 minutes of playing time. His absence opened up the middle of the lane for Hulls and Jones to penetrate, which drew defenders, which opened up easy baskets for Zeller at the hoop and Watford and Sheehey behind the 3-point line. Indiana was leading for most of the evening, but they fell behind with about two minutes to go. Free throw problems down the stretch for Kentucky gave the Hoosiers an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and Watford responded with what has already become one of the most iconic shots in the history of college basketball.
When I got to my brother’s house in Bloomington yesterday afternoon, tornado warnings started crawling across the bottom of the television screen. The mix of 70-plus degree temperature and incoming storm clouds threatened to bring disastrous weather. Then it started hailing.Â Swirling winds, thunder, lightning, balls of ice and a cable blackout were staples of my first hour in B-Town, as they call it. The consensus among the group that had gathered at my brother’s house before we left for the game was that the storm was a good omen for the Hoosiers. The cable blackout, however, was considered bad news. “If we can’t watch, we won’t win,” one of them said.
There was concern that the bar might have lost cable as well, but those fears were quelled immediately when we pulled up to Kilroy’s and were greeted by the boisterous chanting I described earlier.Â The bar was playing the Baylor game, but no one there could concentrate on or talk about anything but the one that would follow it on the same court. About ten minutes before tip-off, “FUCK KEN-TUC-KY!” was the new chant of choice.
As usual, Zeller set the tone early on in the game for the Hoosiers. While Terence Jones and Marquis Teague got Kentucky off to a hot start, Zeller scored three times and assisted on two baskets to keep Indiana in it. When Davis collected his second foul just 5:54 into the game, meaning he was likely out for most of the rest of the first half, the confidence of the crew at the bar was sky high.Â “Got him in foul trouble early. Just like last time. Now Cody has to just take over,” said our random, drunk bar-goer who earlier in the evening had informed me of the future murder of Davis by Zeller. Indiana was within three points and Oladipo was heading to the line for two. He hit both, and the crowd started perking up. “HOO! HOO! HOO! HOO-SIERS!” chants rained down all around me.
But the celebratory atmosphere didn’t last very long. Zeller picked up two quick fouls of his own and it became a whole new ballgame. Just a freshman, Zeller is still by far the best and most important player on the Hoosiers, and there’s an audible groan when he has to leave the court. “We’re in trouble now.” Another person standing with us points out what’s painfully obvious to everyone in the bar.
Kentucky went on a 15-7 run after Zeller hit the bench. Terence Jones and Darius Miller were getting wherever they wanted on the court and Indiana’s offense looked stagnant without it’s anchor. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was grabbing every rebound available. Oladipo was gamely driving to the hoop on every possession, but without Zeller on the floor, Kentucky’s defense collapsed around Oladipo. At this point, the natives were getting restless. “Shit. Now you have to bring Cody back in with two fouls, and if he gets a third, we’re pretty much done.”
But the Hoosiers hung around. Zeller’s re-entry into the game opened up the court for Indiana, especially for Watford, the hero of the previous IU-UK game. He made a lay-up and consecutive jumpers, the latter a 3-pointer to tie the game at 37-37.
I couldn’t even hear the people next to me over the roars of the crowd at this point. After Hulls made a jumper, Watford scored the Hoosiers’ last eight points to keep them within three at 50-47 heading into halftime. While Davis’ early absence in the previous game gave Indiana an opportunity to race out to a sizable lead, Zeller’s early foul trouble this time around gave them a big hole to work their way out of. Indiana was lucky to be as close at they were at the half, especially with how bad their defense had been. For the first time all season, they had allowed 50 points in the first half.
The mood at halftime was mixed. Most of the people I was with considered it a lucky break that they were able to cut the lead back to three after falling behind early on, but they were also disappointed that the team didn’t capitalize on Davis’ absence. That feeling was amplified when Kentucky stretched their lead to back to eight points in the early moments of the second half.
A Jordan Hulls 3-pointer cut the lead to 5, but that’s the closest the Hoosiers would get for the rest of the evening. Kentucky’s lead vacillated between 6 and 12 points throughout, but it never really felt like Indiana was seriously challenging them. It was a period of long, slow acceptance of defeat. The crowd at the bar collectively went through all seven stages of grief in about half an hour.
It got eerily quiet toward the end of the game, as everyone around me slowly accepted that their magical, underdog season was coming to an end.
As we walked the streets of Bloomington after the loss, you could hear random passers by discussing the game, the team and – already – the next season.Â “Cody’s definitely coming back. And with the guys we have coming in, we can win the Big Ten,” one said. “We’re taking down the National Championship,” opined one particularly optimistic student.
My brother’s freshman through junior year coincided with just about the worst three years of Indiana basketball in the history of the school. The school’s all-time winning percentage is .661, but they went 38-66 in his first three years in college: a .365 winning percentage. This year, he got to see home victories against Kentucky (#1 at the time), Ohio State (#2), Michigan (#13), and Michigan State (#5). They hadn’t beaten a top 15 opponent since February 19, 2008, when they beat #15 Purdue at home. My brother was still in high school.
A team that had been picked by many to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten won 27 games and went to the Sweet 16, where they lost to the consensus best team in the country. It was the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since myÂ junior year in college (2008) and their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2002 when they lost to Maryland in the National Championship.
By all accounts, it was the most successful season they’ve had in the last decade, by far. After years of misery, they were finally relevant again. They were officially on their way back. But nobody was satisfied with that. I asked one of the last few stragglers with us last night why.
His response: “This is Indiana. We should beat everybody.”