An intoxicating (and occasionally suffocating) autumn of hype, worry, accusations, fantasies, and musings came to an unexpectedly satisfying culmination on Thursday afternoon at the Hatchet House. And to quote Churchill, “This is not the end, nor is it the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Standing in that gymnasium, listening to the soft-spoken Zeller coolly answer questions from the 60 or so assembled media members, one couldn’t help but feel that this signing signifies far more than just a top-level recruit choosing to ply his trade in Assembly Hall. Although that itself has been in rare supply over the past few years, Zeller’s signing really brought me back to the mindset of over a decade ago — a time when, despite some lack of success in the NCAA tournament, a Hoosier basketball fan could carry themselves with a larger-than-normal dose of swagger and confidence. A time when it really did feel like we were one or two recruits away from retaking our rightful place among the ruling class of basketball.
I remember the palpable joy (and shock) when Jared Jeffries committed to IU — how it seemed certain that he’d be wearing a Duke uniform in a year’s time, and how his decision to stay home provided the fan base with a jolt of excitement and focus that hadn’t been seen since the end of the 93-94 season.
Walking around campus today after returning from Washington, I got the same feeling. People were buzzing. Random conversations passed in the hallway contained the words “Zeller” and “Crean” and “we’re back!”. Excitement bordering on giddiness. My colleague standing in my office door, saying “Great day…GREAT day.”
There’s always a moment in southern Indiana in late February or early March, when that last cover of snow gets zapped by a heavy rainstorm, and then the sun arrives, accompanied by the first warm day of the year. Today had that sort of feeling for the IU basketball program and its fans. Yeah, you know that it’s going to get cold again. You know that winter hasn’t let go yet. But you also know that spring and summer are right around the corner.
Zeller is an incredibly talented player. He’s going to need a lot of strengthening and seasoning. He’s the kind of player that can spearhead a title contender, but it may be until his junior year before his teammates are at the same level. We may be looking at a playing career that’s less Jared Jeffries and more Eric Anderson. But given what we’ve dealt with the last decade, I’d take either at this point.
And he’s also the kind of player that other people want to play with. We’ve already seen Yogi Ferrell hit the accelerator on his recruiting process because he’s so excited about dropping dimes to Zeller and Hanner Perea. Suddenly, IU appears attractive again.
And that’s where our friend Winston Churchill’s words resonate. Churchill was speaking of the British army’s first major victory (at El Alamein) after a string of defeats that left his country beaten and demoralized. Churchill knew that only a fool would celebrate such a victory as a culmination. But it was a signal that the long winter was over — and that success was no longer a fleeting ideal, no longer something that only the adversary enjoyed.
I imagine Tom Crean is feeling that way tonight. The Zeller signing does not represent the re-emergence of Indiana basketball as a national power — that revelation will have to take place on the basketball court. Nor does the signing itself validate the hiring of Crean. But it does indicate that, after 2 1/2 years of near-constant shortfalls and bad news, a page has been turned. And while this signing may or may not be the beginning of IU’s return to glory, it unquestionably represents the end of Tom Crean’s beginning at Indiana.