BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Tom Crean already has one major victory over North Carolina.
He got Cody Zeller.
Now Roy Williams must figure out how to defend the recruit that got away to avoid losing again tonight when No. 14 North Carolina meets No. 1 Indiana in the marquee matchup of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“He’s the guy that makes everybody else change their defense and you have to be concerned about him,” Williams said. “He gave them a legitimate inside scorer that could foul out the other players. I just think he’s a great player, a great player.”
In Bloomington, Zeller means more than that.
As a freshman, he helped put the Hoosiers back on the national map.
This year, he’s considered the best big man in America, was a near-unanimous preseason All-America selection and is one of the favorites to be national player of the year.
His impact can be measured one way – in wins and losses. Without Zeller, Crean was 28-66 in three seasons. With him, the Hoosiers are 33-9 in a little more than two seasons.
Tonight, he will be the center of attention again, though Crean has other concerns.
“They bring some things that we’ve not seen, and I’m not sure that we’ve ever seen here,” Crean said. “I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a fast break like there’s here at Assembly Hall, and James McAdoo is as good a rebounder on the offensive end as anyone we’ve seen this year or any other year.”
The game pits two of college basketball’s truest blue-blood programs against one another. The schools have combined for 10 national championships and 3,766 all-time wins – the most prominent being Indiana’s victory in the 1981 national championship game.
But some of the biggest battles have come off the court.
When the Tar Heels last visited Bloomington in 2004, the Hoosiers had to deal with another recruit that got away – Sean May, who was booed mercilessly in his home city.
That won’t happen this time, in large part because Indiana didn’t let Zeller get away to North Carolina.
Williams was hoping to steal a second Zeller from the Hoosier State, and it almost happened. Zeller’s older brother, Tyler, graduated from North Carolina last year and was a first-round pick in the NBA draft.
“It was real close,” Cody Zeller said Monday. “They were in my top three. I have a lot of respect for everything they do, the coaching staff is great and Tyler really enjoyed his time there. I just thought Indiana was the best place for me, and I have no regrets about that.”
But Williams knows that focusing solely on Zeller would be dangerous because the Hoosiers (6-0) are not a one-man team.
The Hoosiers are fourth nationally in scoring (88.7), lead the Big Ten in defensive rebounding, rebounding margin and scoring margin and are shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from 3-point range.
If the Tar Heels (5-1) learned anything from their loss last week to another team from Indiana, two-time national runner-up Butler, it’s this: They must be ready to play 40 minutes.
“We tried to challenge them the last couple of days that we’ve got to play better than that,” Williams said of the Tar Heels’ trip to Maui where they finished third. “I haven’t noticed the extra energy or the bounce because I’ve worked the dickens out of them.”
The Hoosiers do know what to expect.
After surviving challenges from Georgia and Georgetown last week, Indiana made a defensive statement in Sunday’s 48-point victory over Ball State.
And now, a little more than 48 hours later, they are preparing for a game the students have been anticipating for months.
How excited are the fans? Students started camping in front of Assembly Hall on Monday morning. It’s not the first time the Hoosiers have seen it.
“It’s probably going to be a lot like the Kentucky game last year,” sophomore guard Remy Abell said. “It might even be better. It’s going to be crazy.”
Both teams will be short-handed.
Indiana will play again without 6-foot-9 forward Derek Elston, who is expected to be out until after Christmas following knee surgery, and 6-8 freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea and 7-foot center Peter Jurkin, who were suspended nine games by the NCAA. That could create problems against the biggest foe Indiana has faced this season.
North Carolina will be without sophomore guard P.J. Hairston, who is averaging 10.8 points. He didn’t travel with the team because of a knee injury.
Meaning the difference could be Zeller.
“I’m not going to put five guys on Cody. He is an emphasis and he would have to be the main emphasis, but we’re not designing a defense for him,” Williams said. “I’m not going up there trying to stop Cody Zeller. I’m trying to go up there to beat Indiana.”