Indiana 7-footer Cody Zeller is the consensus preseason player of the year and the Hoosiers were the overwhelming pick as the No. 1 team in the country, but they certainly didn't look the part in the semifinals of the Progressive Legends Classic Monday night at Barclays Center.
It was two guys flying under the radar, point guard Jordan Hulls and shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who finally got the Hoosiers on track in the second half of their 66-53 victory over a game Georgia team. Hulls and Oladipo each had eight points in a 23-7 run that turned a four-point deficit into a commanding 12-point lead.
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Indiana (4-0) will meet the winner of Monday night's late semifinal between UCLA (3-0) and Georgetown (2-0) in Tuesday night's championship game.
Oladipo scored 15 points and shot 6-for-8; Hulls had 14, making 4 of 6 three-point attempts, and Christian Watford added 14 points. Zeller, who said he hadn't practiced much while battling the flu, finished with only six points and four rebounds and had four turnovers in his weakened condition.
"They have a lot of big guys they run out at you," Zeller said of the Bulldogs (1-3). "They were double-teaming. It's nothing I haven't seen. I didn't handle it as well as I could have."
No matter. The Hoosiers forced Georgia into 34.0-percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 40-24.
The Bulldogs got 14 points each from Vincent Williams and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, but the latter made only 4 of 15 shots.
When Oladipo scored on back-to-back baseline drives to tie the game at 38, it ignited the Hoosiers' offense. At one point, Watford hit a three, and Hulls added two more from long range, followed by an Oladipo layup to push the lead to 53-42. The Bulldogs were done.
"Hulls is a terrific player," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "He knows when to speed up, and he understands the game. He's got an old man's game . . . He's a great piece with Zeller because Zeller draws so much attention."
A crowd of more than 20 NBA scouts credentialed for the game were testament to that, but Indiana coach Tom Crean said they should pay attention not just to Zeller but also to Hulls, whom he likened to two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. "Jordan Hulls is an NBA player," Crean said. "He's a winner with a lot of skills."
Zeller was troubled by two early fouls, but Georgia's Fox rightly thought his team had something to do with Zeller's ineffectiveness, too.
"I'll credit our defense for Zeller's numbers tonight, not his foul trouble," Fox said. But he noted that Indiana didn't have to force the offense through its big man, adding: "We trapped him once he caught the ball, but he doesn't have to shoot it every time. They're a balanced team."
Zeller agreed, and on a night when he wasn't at his best, he was happy to share the ball. Speaking of Hulls, he said: "He's one of the best shooters I've ever seen. Georgia was so focused on me and Christian that it opened things up on the outside, and the shots started falling in the second half."
That wasn't the only compliment Hulls received. Television commentator Bob Knight, who knows something about Indiana basketball, said Hulls could play for him.
Said Hulls: "That's pretty special coming from coach Knight."