CHAPEL HILL — For the longest time, Roy Williams felt confident that he had done enough to convince Cody Zeller to follow his older brother, Tyler, to North Carolina.
We recruited him like crazy, Williams, the Tar Heels coach, said of the younger Zeller.
When it came time in November 2010 for Zeller to make his college decision, Williams and his staff at UNC felt good about it. Undoubtedly, so did the coaches at Butler and Indiana, too.
The day Zeller prepared to announce his choice, Williams didnt know what it would be. Thats rare.
We didnt know until the last day that we werent going to get him, he said. And most of the time I know it a heck of a lot earlier than that.
Zeller, from Washington, Ind., could have gone to UNC and joined a roster that already included his older brother and the likes of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall. Instead, he went to Indiana and has helped restore that program as the national power it once was.
As Williams repeated often during a meeting with media members on Monday, Indiana doesnt lack for talent. Five of its players have averaged double figures in scoring. Zeller, though, is the primary reason why the top-ranked Hoosiers enter their game tonight against No. 12 UNC as the early-season favorite to win the national championship.
Hes also the primary reason why after a prolonged stretch of futility, Indiana has again become a feared team one whose future just might be as good as the programs rich past. After Indiana won 28 games combined in coach Tom Creans first three seasons, Zeller last season helped lead the Hoosiers to 27 victories their most since 1993.
More important, he restored credibility to a program that seemed to have lost it.
Dan Dakich, a former Indiana player and coach who is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN, supported Crean through those first three losing seasons. Though the Hoosiers record didnt reflect it, Crean improved the program in a lot of different areas, Dakich said.
Then Crean convinced Zeller to spend his college years in Bloomington, and to play under the championship banners and amid the intense public scrutiny at Indianas Assembly Hall. Zellers decision changed the landscape of college basketball.
Cody made it all right to go to Indiana, said Dakich, who also hosts a radio show in Indianapolis. Like, he made it cool to go to Indiana. So (point guard) Yogi Ferrell then comes. And then a bunch of younger kids now are committed there.
Truthfully this is going to sound bad he would have been another really good player at North Carolina. But the timing of it for Indiana, he became like a savior.
Zeller scored 16 points during his first collegiate game, averaged 15.6 during his freshman season and entered this season as the overwhelming favorite to win national player of the year honors. He did all those things while restoring dignity to a program that, before his arrival, was still reeling from the scandal-ridden end of Kelvin Sampsons coaching tenure.
While Williams coaches tonight, it might be difficult for him not to think what could have been. Had he gone to UNC, Zeller could have created a formidable frontcourt duo with James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward whos sure tonight to play a role both defending against Zeller and matching his offensive output.
At UNC, Zeller could have also filled the interior void left by the departure of his brother and Henson. The Zeller brothers share similar frames and similar games, though Williams said Cody Zeller might be more versatile.
Hes a remarkable player, Williams said. Hes got (Tylers) size but does some more things out on the court, probably, than Tyler does, or did, for us. And maybe a little more flexibility to his game.
Zeller, though, is but one of several Indiana players that concern Williams. He warned on Monday of placing too much of a defensive emphasis on Zeller, and Williams insisted that the Heels couldnt put four guys on Cody.
Six games into the season, Zeller leads Indiana in points, minutes played, blocked shots and is second in rebounds. But four others Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey are scoring in double figures, too.
So Im not going to put five guys on Cody, said Williams, who rejected the thought that UNC might even double-team Zeller. But he is an emphasis and he would have to be the main emphasis, but were not designing a defense for him. Im not going up there trying to stop Cody Zeller. Im trying to go up there to beat Indiana.
To have any hope of that, the Tar Heels likely will need to play with more toughness both physical and mental than they did last week in the Maui Invitational, where they finished in third place. Williams chided his teams toughness on Monday, and over the weekend he put the Heels through a pair of grueling practices.
Dexter Strickland, UNCs senior guard, winced on Monday at the thought of those workouts.
We ran so much yesterday, said Strickland, who described a post-practice running session that involved sprinting up and down the court three times in less than 33 seconds. But I look at it as not punishment, but something to make us better.
The Heels traveled to Hawaii last week hoping to learn something about themselves. They did, Williams said, though not all of it was good.
Now comes another opportunity on the road, against perhaps both the best player and the best team in the nation.