When Cody Zeller was asked when he decided to leave Indiana University early to enter the NBA, he sidestepped the question.
“After a while, you just kind of know,” Zeller said Wednesday as he formally announced he was leaving IU’s basketball program. “I knew barring injury or anything, this might be my last year; I was enjoying every last minute of it.”
Zeller turned down the opportunity to go to the NBA last season, but the chance to achieve his lifetime goal was too much to deny a second time — even if he leaves the Hoosiers without a national title.
“That’s always the goal,” Zeller said, acknowledging that the chance at a national championship was a key factor in his decision to return to IU last season. “We had a great team this year, with a lot of depth, a lot of great players. Unfortunately we couldn’t make that happen, but we definitely had a successful year with how many wins we had, the Big Ten championship.”
It didn’t take long for Zeller to impact the Hoosiers. Zeller’s signing helped draw other top prospects to Indiana, notably AAU teammate Yogi Ferrell, even if the ever-humble Zeller deflected praise for his part in that aspect of IU’s resurgence.
“I wasn’t taking credit for it [when I signed] and I’m not taking credit for it now,” Zeller said, instead pointing out the recruiting acumen of IU coach Tom Crean and the rest of IU’s coaching staff.
Crean wouldn’t let his star recruit get out of it that easy.
“I think what you have is that people were looking forward to getting a chance to play with Cody and win with Cody,” Crean said.
With good reason. There’s no denying that Zeller’s presence in the post helped IU improve from also-rans to Big Ten champions.
IU was 12-20 the season before Zeller came to college. The Hoosiers improved to 27-9 his freshman season and went 29-7 this season, winning the school’s first outright regular-season Big Ten title since 1993. IU advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament both seasons, losing to eventual national champion Kentucky and Final Four participant Syracuse, respectively.
Zeller was the consensus preseason national player of the year last fall and the Hoosiers were preseason No. 1 in both polls. IU stayed at No. 1 more weeks than any other team in 2012-13.
Zeller was a second-team Associated Press All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten selection this season, and he led the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding in both of his years in Bloomington.
His departure, along with the early departure of Victor Oladipo and the graduations of Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford, leave the Hoosiers with just one returning starter, in soon-to-be sophomore point guard Ferrell.
That likely means sixth man Will Sheehey moves to the starting lineup, along with Remy Abell. But more importantly is that an offense designed, at least in principle, to work through Zeller’s post play must be changed. None of the three likely candidates to replace Zeller in the starting lineup — sophomores Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin and freshman Luke Fischer — have shown enough to be Zeller 2.0.
Zeller admitted the loss of key players such as Oladipo, Hulls and Watford played a role in his decision to leave.
“IU will have a great year next year, but the guys I was closest to are graduating and leaving,” he said.
But he’s not concerned that the Hoosiers’ future means a return to the bottom of the Big Ten.
“I think the biggest thing is that the culture really changed. I think Vic and Will even started it before I got here,” he said.
“That’s what it takes to be successful, you have to keep on improving. But I think that will continue; the guys that are here will pass that on to the freshmen and it will continue for a long time.”
But Zeller deserves all the credit he gets for the culture change, Crean said.
“He’s really come in here and left his mark,” Crean said. “One that will stand for a very long time.”