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Column: A handsome night for Zeller

Cody Zeller (pictured above) was everything North Carolina was not — focused, driven, energetic — scoring 20 points and outclassing James Michael McAdoo in Indiana's 83-59 win against the Tar Heels on Tuesday night.

Tuesday night’s Indiana-North Carolina game was, quite rightly, billed in part as a match-up of super sophomores, of two young men who might once have been classmates and are now constructing national player of the year resumes.

By the end of IU’s 83-59 destruction of the Tar Heels, one sophomore had faded entirely from the game, while the other dominated thoroughly, providing for Indiana so much of what North Carolina lacked.

To put it simply, Cody Zeller was nothing less than superb Tuesday night.

The younger brother of former North Carolina standout Tyler Zeller, Indiana’s 7-foot superstar considered the Tar Heels before picking IU and sparking his program’s renaissance. On this night, though, he did nothing better than show North Carolina exactly what it missed in losing him.

Where UNC routinely lacked energy and focus, Zeller was relentless at both ends of the floor. While James Michael McAdoo floundered, scoring 10 points in the game’s first 16 minutes and none in its final 24, Zeller continually pounded North Carolina in transition, in the halfcourt and on defense.

Zeller finished the game with 20 points — more than any other player — eight rebounds and four blocks. He was an uncontrollable force whenever he was on the floor. He played up to his billing as an All-American.

Was this a statement, a silent message to the program that might have landed his commitment but did not? Quiet and happily aloof, Zeller likely wouldn’t say so publicly, but he’s certainly had nights like this before, when the stakes seemed higher or the opponent more deserving of his exceptional ability to become unstoppable. Perhaps he didn’t want to blast North Carolina specifically, but he’s always been better when the spotlight was brighter.

“Cody’s got a patience about him that’s just fine. He’s gonna feel the game out,” IU coach Tom Crean said after the game. “Dwyane Wade was like this in the sense that you just don’t force it on them. You let the great players feel their way through it a little bit. …

“He truly lets the game come to him.”

Perhaps he does, yet he did nothing but take the game to North Carolina for all 28 of his minutes Tuesday.

His first points were the first of the game, from an eight-foot jumper. His next came through a fast-break layup — off of a made basket, it should be said — that also drew a foul. Zeller scored seven of Indiana’s first 11 points, and he had 13 in the first half.

The point about the made basket is apt. The Hoosiers outhustled their listless, punch-drunk visitors at every turn Tuesday night, even beating them down the floor in transition after North Carolina scores.

No player better represented the gulf in energy than Zeller, who made a routine of being the first player down the floor, even on possessions when he didn’t get the ball for his trouble.

He never stopped running, long after North Carolina had decided against the practice. In a thoroughly one-sided performance, Zeller embodied every quality that North Carolina lacked, personifying every reason why the Tar Heels were blown out of Assembly Hall so unceremoniously.

This was a performance unlike any we’ve seen from the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year, who struggled with asthmatic bronchitis early in the season and was not always himself during Indiana’s trip to Brooklyn last week. Tuesday night, he was utterly dominant against a team that could have used every quality he brought to the game.

Indiana’s goofy, unassuming superstar, customarily, did his work quietly, but he at times singlehandedly undid the Tar Heels. Afterward, sitting in the press room at Assembly Hall, he was asked what his postgame text to brother Tyler might say, after such a total victory in what is a pleasant but fierce sibling rivalry.

“I don’t know,” Zeller said, his wide grin never breaking. “Did he win? Did he win tonight?”

Tyler Zeller’s Cleveland Cavaliers had played oldest brother Luke Zeller’s Phoenix Suns. No, he was told, they did not win.

“Oh,” Zeller said. “That’s tough.”

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