Indiana freshman Cody Zeller has been a hot topic leading up to the start of the new season. A common narrative has developed that focuses on the immense burden awaiting the highly-touted recruit at IU. The 6-11 center was a McDonald's All-American and consensus top-10 recruit who chose to commit to Indiana despite the program's recent struggles. Zeller's arrival at Indiana was seen as a sign that the Hoosiers are on track to achieve national prominence once again. Indeed, this was a lot to ask of a freshman before he'd even played a college game.
Such expectations are not uncommon with top-25 recruits, of course, but most of the time these studs are expected to simply preserve a status quo of winning. Zeller is in a much more unique spot as a star player joining a program that hasn't won much lately. To determine just how unusual Zeller's situation is, I put together a graph that shows the top recruits over the last four years who have joined floundering programs. I measure a program's futility by taking its conference winning percentage from the three years prior to a recruit's arrival on campus. The ranking of recruits is from RSCIhoops.com.
There were 12 top-25 recruits since 2008 that joined programs with three-year conference winning percentages under .450. Zeller, though, is the clear outlier as the only elite recruit to commit to a school with a winning percentage under .200.
Zeller finds himself under the microscope more than other elite recruits at (relatively) struggling programs because of the particular school he chose to attend. Indiana has hung five national championship banners, while Georgia Tech and Cincinnati -- where Derrick Favors and Lance Stephenson respectively chose to play in 2009 -- don't have quite the same historical basketball presence. As for C.J. Leslie, though he chose a traditional power in North Carolina State the storyline most often evoked in his case involved the increasingly warm seat underneath former Wolfpack head coach Sidney Lowe.
Fans in Bloomington expect Zeller to become nothing less than the bedrock piece on a team that will eventually raise the school's sixth national championship banner. It's probably not a stretch to say that such a burden was not exactly placed upon the shoulders of a Favors or a Stephenson.
While Zeller may eventually become that foundational piece once IU's vaunted 2012 recruiting class arrives to help him out, there's also an expectation that his presence will have an immediate impact on Indiana's performance this year. Zeller has played a major role from the beginning because he offers the Hoosiers help where they need it post -- in the paint. Coach Tom Crean has yet to have a player with the potential to dominant on the interior during his tenure, which is at least partly why his squads have struggled on the glass. Last season IU was one of the worst teams in the Big Ten at generating second-chance scoring opportunities and at denying them to opponents. Zeller offers immediate help in this regard.
The Washington, Indiana, product may also provide support in two other areas for the Hoosiers. His mere presence in the paint could generate more blocks for Indiana, which finished last in the league in block percentage last year. On the other end of the court, Crean will run some offensive sets through Zeller to generate more high-percentage scoring opportunities. After connecting on just 48 percent of their two-pointers a year ago, it will be a luxury for the Hoosiers to be able to feed a big man who can create offense close to the basket. And if he and his teammates can cut down on the fouls, Indiana may just end the season with some momentum heading into their destiny year.
No matter what becomes of the Hoosiers in 2011-12, there will be a microscope on Cody Zeller throughout the season. That microscope is focusing on him in a manner that no other top-25 freshman has seen in at least the last four seasons. The next time you read about the massive expectations awaiting Zeller this year, tip your cap to the young man. He's a rare breed among elite recruits.
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