|After two years of missing on big recruits, Crean landed Zeller in the Hoosiers' backyard. (US Presswire)|
Cody Zeller is The Savior. It sounds strong, but it's accurate. Without the local kid from Washington, Ind., the Hoosiers aren't a national title contender, a Final Four candidate and maybe not even an NCAA tournament team.
When Tom Crean inherited the program, it was a complete disaster. There were academic issues, drug problems and numerous defections that left IU basketball in complete shambles. It was a major rebuilding process left behind by Kelvin Sampson and his bevy of illegal phone calls. The six-win campaign in Crean's first season was understood, acceptable. So too was the 10 wins in 2009-10. But a dozen victories two years ago, in Year 3 of the Crean Regime, and the natives were starting to get restless. Crean had missed on a few top recruits, including No. 1 draft pick Kyrie Irving.
Then Zeller arrived.
"I hate to think where we'd be right now if he hadn't committed," Crean said.
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Probably stuck somewhere in mediocrity, certainly by IU standards. But luckily for Crean and Hoosier fans they don't have to worry about the "What If" game. Sure, Crean and his staff have compiled a nice group, evaluating guys like Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo, getting the most out of Jordan Hulls -- and nabbing slightly enigmatic and talented forward Christian Watford out of Birmingham, Ala.
But the program forever changed on Nov. 11, 2010. That was the day when Zeller decided not to follow his older brothers, Luke and Tyler, who spurned Hoosiers Nation for, respectively, Notre Dame and North Carolina. Or Sean May, Greg Oden and Mike Conley -- all of whom went elsewhere to play college ball.
"So many great players had been leaving Indiana," Cody Zeller said. "I was the first one to come to Indiana that played in Indiana."
Maybe not the first, but certainly the most important in a long, long time. And they have followed The Big Handsome to Bloomington.
Indiana put together one of the nation's top freshman classes -- and three of the four players hail from the state of Indiana. Yogi Ferrell, a near-lock to start at point guard this season, was the most heralded -- but there was also Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Perea, both considered consensus Top 50 kids.
"He made it cool to go to IU," ESPN analyst and former Indiana player and coach Dan Dakich said.
"Tom was always going to make IU better, but Zeller coming took that program from being respectable to elite," said one NBA scout. "His presence accelerated Indiana becoming Indiana again."
The Hoosiers have gone from a program that some thought could be NIT-bound a year ago (yes, I was wrong on that one) to a team that now will start the season somewhere in everyone's Top 3. Credit everyone from Crean on down, but most of all, credit Zeller.
He's a skilled 7-footer who averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a freshman for a team that won 27 games and advanced to the Sweet 16. He's one of the few whose production will match his potential. NBA scouts are gushing, most assuming he will be the first player off the board this June, but Zeller wants no part of the NBA talk. For real.
"That's one of the reasons that makes him so special," Crean said. "He's got that rare combination of humility and humbleness, yet he's extremely confident."
Zeller can literally do just about everything on the court that you'd want from a 7-footer. He can score in the post, step up and make shots from the perimeter. He's a gazelle getting up and down the court just like his brother, Tyler, and he's a presence on the defensive end. Sure, Crean wants him to become a more dominant rebounder, for him to assert himself more on the offensive end and be a vocal leader.
"But his rate of improvement is so high," Crean said. "He's getting better all the time."
That's not exactly what Big Ten big men like Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota), Derrick Nix (Michigan State), Amir Williams (Ohio State) or Mitch McGary (Michigan) want to hear. Zeller has put on about 10 pounds, is up to 238 and won't be pushed around in the paint this season.
Zeller has forgiven me for pegging Indiana as a potential NIT team last season -- or continuing to be a skeptic throughout the season as the Hoosiers elevated into Top 5 territory following the upset over eventual national champion Kentucky.
"You weren't the only one writing that stuff. Everyone was doubting us even later in the season," he said. "I think the guys in the locker room were the only ones with expectations that we met, making the NCAA tournament and the Sweet 16. It gave us a taste of what success is like, but it left us wanting more."
Zeller and his teammates want a Final Four, a national title. The last one in Bloomington came 25 years ago, back when Keith Smart hit the memorable shot to beat Syracuse.
"It's a little different this year," Zeller admitted. "It should be a fun year for us."
It all circles back to Zeller, who will undoubtedly make everyone's life easier with his presence. He's loose off the court, but all business on it. The most common knock on him is that he's not selfish enough, but Crean is the first to realize that there's not much to complain about with his star.
"There's no question the turning point was Cody," Crean said.
And that will never be forgotten in Bloomington.