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Column: The Freshman who Ignited a Rebirth

The question is reserved for only the most marquee moments in a person’s lifetime.
Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? When the Twin Towers fell? When your child said its first words?

We place little bookmarks in our heads when something happens that will change our lives forever.

“It was a Thursday, I believe,” IU Coach Tom Crean said as he tried to recall the day he learned freshman forward Cody Zeller had decided to play for the Hoosiers. “I'd gone to get some breakfast and I made a call to his father.  And it was, on my part, it was somewhat emotional. I said I don't know how this is going to turn out, I know I hope it turns out.”

I would say things have turned out pretty well for the co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year, who scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in IU’s 63-61 victory against VCU Saturday.

“I was at a Mexican restaurant in Tipton with a bunch of my friends for lunch,” said freshman guard Austin Etherington, who was the first member of this season’s freshman class to commit to IU and helped spearhead the effort to recruit Zeller. “He texted me right before he made the announcement.”

Meanwhile, about 95 miles south of Tipton, the Hoosiers were about to start practice in Bloomington when Zeller, wearing a plain grey UnderArmour sweatshirt, stepped up to a podium at Washington High School’s Hatchet House and broadcasted his college decision on camera.

“I was sitting in a locker room, watching it on a computer before practice,” senior guard Matt Roth said. “It was a cool moment, but at the same time we knew at that point in time, there was nothing that was going to change until he got here. It was a big moment for the program.”

Junior forward Derek Elston remembered the good news waning into a less than desirable practice, which occurred just two days before IU’s regular season opener against Howard.

“I was on the court and Coach Crean was walking through — we had just started practice — and Coach Crean or Kory (Barnett) said he committed,” Elston said. “Coach Crean was happy as ever. It was actually one of the toughest practices we had been through just because he knew Cody was coming next year.”

I was in the back row of a public relations class lecture in Ernie Pyle Hall, watching the decision on my laptop with a friend. Each of us with listened with an ear bud, as Zeller uttered two letters — “IU” — that would drastically change the course of Indiana basketball.

We all remember Thursday, November 11, 2010 because of the basketball player, and the person, that Crean was able to nab from North Carolina and Butler.

Maybe it wasn’t as clear then what Zeller could do on the box score and — perhaps more importantly — in the win column. But now that the Hoosiers have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in a decade, there is no doubt that Zeller has been one of the biggest catalysts to IU’s present and future success.

“The opportunities for him are endless,” Elston said. “We knew Cody was going to be a huge part of this team coming in. I don’t know if anybody though he was going to have this big of an impact.”

Three wins over top-five ranked teams, finishing in the top half of the Big Ten, making a run into the NCAA Tournament (heck, even being selected for the damn thing), garnering one of the best recruiting classes in the nation for next year –none of it happens if Zeller says another school’s name that Thursday.

That’s not to discredit the Hoosiers who have improved vastly this season because this magical run has not been a one-man show.

But the numbers show why the addition of Zeller has been so crucial.

Zeller is leading the Hoosiers in points and rebounds this year, averaging 15.5 and 6.5 per game, respectively. Against New Mexico State Thursday, he had a team high in assists (4), rebounds (6) and set a NCAA Tournament record for Big Ten players with six steals.

And again Saturday, it was Zeller stepping up when the Hoosiers needed him the most, scoring four of IU’s nine points in the final 2:55 to seal a comeback win.

“We gave [Zeller] the ball and we cleared out and we told him, ‘get us in the bonus and get some buckets for us,’” senior forward Christian Watford said of the teams’ strategy towards the end of Saturday’s win.

In the Hoosiers’ two NCAA Tournament victories, Zeller has averaged nearly a double-double with 15 points and 9.5 rebounds a game.

“It means a lot,” Zeller said. “This is why I came here, to play in big games like this. Everybody dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament and close games like that, making the steps toward the National Championship and it’s definitely been a fun year for me.”

Until tonight, I had never written a column on Cody Zeller.

Sure, he has had huge performances, but those feats just never took me by surprise. I like to look for the player who comes out of nowhere to make a big difference for their team.

But Zeller keying an IU victory by scoring in double figures? That’s not news –he’s scored at least 10 points in 31 of 35 games this season.

And the fact that Hoosier Nation and I expect this level of consistency and actually receive it from a freshman is incredible.

Zeller’s success this early in his college career not only draws the ire of frustrated opponents, but excitement for the future from those watching him.

“He’s just so determined to getter better at every aspect of his game,” Roth said. “That’s not something that should surprise you at this level, but a kid as talented as him and the diversity that he wants to add to his game, it’s unbelievable.”

The coach who faced Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, Kansas and Butler in the NCAA Tournament last year shared a comparison that speaks volumes.

“He's as good as any big kid that we've played in the three years I've been at VCU,” Rams Coach Shaka Smart said Friday. “And the scary thing is he's only a freshman. His future is extremely bright. He's going to do terrific things at Indiana and beyond.”

Cody Zeller stepped to the foul line to shoot two free throws with 1:31 to go until another signature, but not surprising, Shaka Smart-authored upset.

The Hoosiers were down 61-57. A spirited VCU Pep Band stationed behind the basket ferociously chanted “miss, miss, miss,” pointing at the 6-foot-11 freshman. The weight of an entire basketball program and its fans rested up Zeller’s shoulders, as it has all year.

The 19-year-old kid from Washington, Ind., who seamlessly juggles endless media attention, the heavy workload for a directly admitted student at the Kelley School of Business and the experience of being a freshman in college, did what he has been doing all season:

He did not disappoint.

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