BLOOMINGTON -- Cody Zeller wasn't about to have a Gisele moment. His foot stayed far away from his mouth. The feistiness that flashed oh so briefly on Assembly Hall's Branch McCracken Court was as visible in a press conference setting as a breath.
Any heat-of-the-moment exchanges between Indiana's freshman forward and Illinois center Meyers Leonard Thursday night, was just, “Two guys going at it,” Zeller said.
And then, for clarity:
“That's just the Big Ten.”
Zeller took shots during IU's 84-71 victory. He always takes shots. Some players might let it rattle them. He treats it with indifference born of sibling abuse. Older brothers Luke and Tyler schooled him in the rugged art of physical play years before Cody ever put on a candy striped Hoosier uniform. Like Cody, they were Indiana Mr. Basketballs out of Washington who starred at college, Luke for Notre Dame, Tyler now with North Carolina.
This year teams get rough because the rap on Zeller is he needs more weight and strength, although nine months in the IU strength and conditioning program have steeled him for the poundings. No matter. He gets pushed and prodded and, most memorably at Wisconsin, tossed to the floor.
“I come to expect it,” he said. “I have to keep my head straight. It won't do any good to throw a fit.”
This is what coach Tom Crean saw during the recruitment process. It's among the reason why Zeller was considered an elite prospect, why he's won five Big Ten freshman of the week honors, why he's in the running for national player of the year accolades.
“I think he relished (the contact),” Crean said. “I think it gets him going.
“He's a tough young man. He's mentally tough. He's physically tough. He's getting stronger. The more you come at him, the better it is. We saw that the other night (against Purdue).
“If you want to be physical, he's going to respond. That's a great attribute for a young man. A lot comes from the way he was raised and playing with his older brothers way he did.”
Zeller speaks softly and brings a big game. That was as evident as a Jordan Hulls three-pointer Thursday night. He had a game-high 22 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field, 12-for-14 shooting from the line. He was a second-half beast, scoring at will, putting anyone who guarded him into foul trouble. Leonard fouled out. Forward Nnanna Egwu fouled out.
“We fed the ball to Cody in the post,” guard Jordan Hulls said, “and he was patient like he always is. He tries to find people. If not, he attacked the basket and got people into foul trouble. It was huge for us.”
Added Zeller: “If teams double me, I find the open guy. Otherwise, I attack the basket.”
Along the way Zeller shrugged off rough stuff as if it was dandruff. He isn't Indiana's leading scorer (15.4) and rebounder (6.4) by accident.
“The only thing soft about Cody is he's a little too soft-spoken on the court too much sometimes,” Crean said. “Other than that he's a tough person.”
The No. 23 Hoosiers mirrored that toughness against Illinois by attacking the rim and pounding the boards. They were 35-for-42 from the line and won the rebounding battle, 27-23.
Victor Oladipo continued his metamorphosis into a point guard in the absence of Verdell Jones, still out with a bruised right shoulder. Oladipo had 18 points and five rebounds while playing a career-high 36 minutes. He went 10-for-12 from the line for the second straight game.
Forward Christian Watford broke out of a mini-slump with 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting, a big turnaround from the 0-for-7, four-point effort he had at Purdue.
Hulls added 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds.
Illinois' D.J. Richardson had 19 points before he fouled out. Leonard added 17 points and three rebounds.
The No. 23 Hoosiers improved to 19-6 overall, 7-6 in the Big Ten. Illinois is 16-8 and 5-6.
IU wanted to run and it showed early. It pushed the pace, got Hulls, Watford and Zeller involved, and bolted to a 13-6 lead. Illinois didn't flinch. It scored 10 straight points to turn possible early rout into a game. It went ahead 16-13 and then 20-17. Still, the Hoosiers regrouped (in part because they were 16-for-16 from the line in the first half) and led 38-36 at halftime.
The Hoosiers got second-half separation when Hulls hit a three-pointer, Zeller had a three-point play and another basket. That pushed IU ahead 54-46 with 15 minutes left.
IU extended its free-throw streak to 19 straight before Zeller missed. The school record for a game is 25-for-25.
Illinois' three-point shooting kept it within range. A Richardson three-pointer made it 62-59 with nine minutes left. Then Illini foul trouble -- and Hoosiers free-throw shooting – took their toll. Watford's three-pointer made it 73-61 with less than six minutes left.
The Illini were finished. The Hoosiers were just beginning.
“The ceiling is limitless for this team,” Hulls said. “We're getting better every day.”