The University of Indiana has long been recognized for its rich basketball tradition. The IU basketball program has won five national titles, made eight Final Four appearances and earned the Big Ten championship 21 times. That success is no accident, as Indiana can claim some of the most legendary coaches and players in college basketball history. This dates all the way back to Branch McCracken, who took over as coach in 1938 not long after finishing up an impressive playing career with the Hoosiers. McCracken was the first coach to lead Indiana to an NCAA title, winning it all in 1939-40 and again in 1952-53. Of course, McCracken wasn’t the only terrific coach to roam the sidelines in Bloomington. All-time great Bob Knight led the school to three titles during his time as coach from 1971-2000. Not only did Knight win, but he produced a number of terrific college and pro players – most notably 12-time NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.
Indiana hasn’t won another title since Knight departed, but they have continued to develop some of the best players in the country – most recently Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. In their two seasons together at Indiana (2011-12 and 2012-13), Zeller and Oladipo led the Hoosiers to a record of 56-16, reaching the Sweet 16 in both seasons. Both declared for the NBA draft following the 2012-13 season. Oladipo was chosen with the second pick by the Orlando Magic and Zeller wasn’t far behind, going fourth overall to the then Charlotte Bobcats. During their time at Indiana, Zeller and Oladipo formed a strong friendship and remain close despite their busy NBA schedules.
“Cody is my big, little brother, you know what I mean? Me and him have grown closer and closer over the years,” Oladipo said. “We went to college together for two years, we were in the same draft, we both go back to Indiana to work out and stuff so Cody is my man. He is my brother.”
Being chosen so high, expectations for Oladipo and Zeller were quite lofty. Oladipo joined a Magic team firmly in the middle of a rebuild, allowing him to play big minutes as a rookie. He would start in 44 of the Magic’s 82 games and developed into one their most productive players on both ends of the floor. Oladipo put up very solid numbers, averaging 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals. He finished the season particularly strong, garnering consideration for Rookie of the Year before ultimately losing out to Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Zeller found himself in a much different situation than Oladipo. While the Bobcats certainly struggled the year prior to drafting Zeller, going 21-61, he was joining a much more established roster. Led by Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, the Bobcats shockingly snuck into playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference last season, before being eliminated by the Miami HEAT. Minutes weren’t as easy to come by for Zeller as they were for Oladipo, but he still managed to be a valuable contributor during his rookie season. Despite playing just over 17 minutes a game, Zeller was the Bobcats’ fifth leading rebounder with 4.3 boards a night.
Both have continued to play well during their sophomore campaigns in the NBA. Zeller has seen his role increase dramatically, starting in 35 of the Hornets’ 51 games and has improved his numbers across the board. This may come as a surprise to some, but not toOladipo.
“He is getting better; the sky is the limit for him,” Oladipo said of Zeller. “He has always been a great player, his ability at his size is very unique, his athleticism is very unique and the fact that he is growing and getting better just shows you that the sky is the limit for him.”
Likewise, Oladipo has continued his development during his second pro season and become one the most important players on the young Magic. He has started in all but one game, and has really grown on the offensive end. Oladipo’s scoring is up to 16.6 points per game compared to 13.8 as a rookie, and he is improving his efficiency as well as his field percentage (from 41.9 to 44.3 percent) and three point percentage (from 32.7 to 34.1 percent). Zeller has been watching his growth and praises his former teammate.
“He’s definitely improved a lot,” Zeller said. “I think it’s kind of been fun to just go through it with him because we came into the league together. We still talk quite a bit, so we bounce ideas off each other and encourage each other. It’s good to have a close friend like that, who is going through the same things as I am.”
Now, nearly two years removed from their last game together with Indiana, Zeller and Oladipo have been reunited this weekend in New York City as both players will be members of the USA team during the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night.
“Victor and I are really close so any time we can spend together, whether it’s before or after one of our games or at an event like this, is fun,” Zeller said. “This is just a fun opportunity to catch up with him and be around him.”
The opportunity to participate in the All-Star festivities and do so with a close friend and former teammate should make this a memorable event for both. If they can continue to improve, this may not be their last All-Star weekend together and possibly someday soon we’ll see the two playing together during the main event on Sunday. It won’t be easy, but having each other to lean on certainly helps.
“[We’ll] just keep grinding that’s the biggest thing,” Oladipo said. “It is a long year, a lot of ups and a lot of downs, with injuries and stuff. Just keep grinding; you got to keep hope alive.”
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