Phialdelphia, PA – Most schools has a strong following, but there are only a select few college basketball fan bases that are ravenous and bleed the sport.
Kentucky supporters in Lexington want nothing but bluegrass and Wildcat titles. Lawrence is another college basketball hot-bed, while the rivalry between denizens of Chapel Hill and Durham is as heated as any in sports today.
Basketball in Bloomington used to match if not exceed the intensity of them all, but in recent years Indiana has dropped out of the national scene. The Hoosiers went just 28-66 in the three seasons prior to 2011-12 and had won 20 or more games only twice since 2003.
Last season that all changed as the Hoosiers found their way back into the national spotlight by climbing into the Top-25, making a run to the Sweet 16 and giving a state that adores its basketball a team to be proud of.
Such success might become a trend once again for the Hoosiers especially after last week when Indiana got another big boost towards continuing the upward trend for the 11th-winningest program in NCAA history.
All-Big Ten selection Cody Zeller and honorable mention All-Big Ten selection Christian Watford both decided to return to Indiana for the 2012-2013 campaign. In an era where one-and-dones have become the norm, Zeller is an especially big asset returning to Bloomington.
While Kentucky's Anthony Davis and other freshman will enter the NBA Draft, Zeller will again come back to anchor the Hoosiers on the inside, despite being projected as a top-15 pick and perhaps higher in this year's draft.
"I grew up hoping that one day I would get the opportunity to play in the NBA, but at this point, I'm not ready for my college experience to be over," said Zeller.
The youngster was a dominant forced on the interior for Indiana last season helping the Hoosiers reach into the national rankings for the first time in four years.
The 6-11 forward was named Indiana High School's Mr. Basketball in his senior season and became the 26th player to do so and suit up for the Hoosiers. Zeller lived up to his hype as such a touted recruit and turned in a stellar freshman campaign in which he averaged 15.6 points per game, while bringing in 6.6 rebounds a contest. Zeller was one of the more efficient scorers in the country as well, leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage (62.6).
Zeller also performed well in a season in which he consistently played against some of the best big men in the nation. Zeller clashed with Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Michigan State's Draymond Green and helped Indiana go 2-2 in those contests, while managing to hold his own against guys thought to be top five picks in this year's draft.
Zeller struggled in his first meeting against Michigan State scoring a season low four points in an 80-65 loss. After that game he scored 16.0 points per game against the Buckeyes and Spartans. Zeller did struggle on the boards collecting only 4.7 rebounds per game in those three contests and for a player of his height has had trouble in the rebounding department early in his career.
It wasn't just against the Big Ten that Zeller cut his chops early on in his time at Indiana. Zeller battled down low twice this season, including once in the Sweet 16, with Davis of Kentucky, who many believe will go No. 1 overall in this summer's NBA Draft. Zeller averaged 15.5 points per game against the nations leading shot blocker and was above his season average bringing down seven rebounds in the two contests.
"[Zeller] is going to have a great opportunities ahead of him, yet his demeanor, work ethic and desire to be a great teammate never waivers," said head coach Tom Crean about his star forward, "He will have the opportunity to be as good as any player in college basketball."
Although not as high a projected draft pick, Watford coming back was another coo for the Hoosiers, who went 27-9 last season, the most wins by the program since the 31-win 1993 squad.
Watford was the second leading scorer (12.6 ppg) and rebounder (5.8 rpg) for Indiana. The 6-9 forward teams with Zeller to form a powerful tandem in the paint, but has the ability to spread the floor after shooting 43.7 percent from beyond the arc last season.
In the NCAA Tournament, Watford turned up his intensity and was phenomenal as the Hoosiers made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons and the longest run in the NCAA Tournament since losing in the national title game in 2002. Watford averaged 19.0 points per game in the first three rounds including pouring in a season-high 27 points in the Sweet 16 loss to eventual national champion Kentucky.
"Christian really ended the season on a high note on the biggest stage and is building off that," said Crean, "He is going to have the opportunity to be a leader and have a greater impact on the program and his game."
Watford clearly has an understanding of the tradition and passion that comes with playing for Indiana.
"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to complete my degree and to continue restoring the winning tradition at Indiana," said Watford.
Crean didn't begin his tenure well at Indiana but thanks to a resurgent 2011-2012 season, he has Indiana poised to be a national contender at least for one more year. Zeller and Watford clearly were keys to that turnaround, something Crean is well aware of.
Indiana will also benefit from returning the other three starters from a year ago and with Zeller having a stellar rookie campaign under his belt, the Hoosiers might not just be a resurgent team, but a contending one in 2013.