BLOOMINGTON – When he put on either the white or the black uniform in high school, he couldn’t notice the difference.
“I didn’t believe the home court advantage was such a big deal,” said Cody Zeller, who played his home games frequently in front of 5,000 fans at Washington High School’s Hatchet House.
It might have been easy for the current Indiana center to take it for granted, since his team lost just ten games in four seasons. But things changed a lot once he got to Bloomington.
Despite all the positives from their 2011-2012 season when they made the Sweet 16 the team struggled to a 3-6 mark in the conference on the road which prevented a run to the championship.
“Now that I’ve experienced it, its worth quite a few points,” said Zeller-and maybe that’s why the team is off on the right foot this season.
In three Big Ten road games the Hoosiers have come home with three victories as they’ve beaten Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern in their first three conference games away from Assembly Hall. The latter wasn’t the prettiest-an eight-point win over a short-handed Northwestern team-but its result was desired.
“It’s especially tough to win in this league,” said head coach Tom Crean. “I don’t think there is a coach, player or program that wouldn’t agree with that.
During his first three seasons the Hoosiers had a 4-32 record away from Assembly Hall in the Big Ten as the coach was rebuilding the program after the fallout from the Kelvin Sampson era. Sunday’s win over Northwestern, in fact, was Indiana’s first in Evanston since February 21, 2008, the day after Sampson turned in his resignation.
“It’s a big deal,” said Crean of Indiana’s win over the Wildcats and the team’s perfect record so far in the conference.
Of course, it is early. Six games remain on the road slate for the Hoosiers with their next being at Purdue on January 30th. A trip to Illinois on February 7th will be the last time they don’t face a team on the road in the conference that is not currently ranked.
Fourteenth-ranked Ohio State (Feb. 10th), 13th-ranked Michigan State (Feb 19th), 12th-ranked Minnesota (Feb 26th) and second-ranked Michigan (Mar 10th) await the Hoosiers in the final month of the season on the road.
“You have to go one game at a time,” said senior Jordan Hulls of how the team will attack the upcoming road tests. “Do the things that we know we are capable of doing.”
To win the Big Ten championship, that will be critical. Since 2008 every team that has either won the conference title outright or shared it has had a winning record in the conference-and the majority have been well over it. Wisconsin (2008) and Michigan State (2009) each went 8-1 away from their respective home floors in Big Ten play. The Spartans went 7-2 in 2010 along with Purdue as they shared the championship with Ohio State (6-3) on the road.
Thad Matta’s team went 7-2 the next season away from Value City Arena on their way to an outright championship, then went 6-3 sharing the crown with Michigan and Michigan State who were each 5-4 away from home.
What the Hoosiers did on Sunday could help them to finish games on the road, since the outrebounded the Wildcats 33-18 and shot 74 percent from the line to keep Northwestern from pulling the upset.
“You’ve got to get to the free throw line and rebound the basketball,” said senior Christian Watford-who was 6-of-8 in his free throw attempts and grabbed six rebounds Sunday. “You have to come out with that mindset and you can’t just live on jump shots.”
Especially if the Hoosiers want to keep this fast start going to get some hardware in a month-and-a-half.