BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Three hours before Indiana and Purdue tipped off Sunday evening, Bloomington was still sleepy.
The hangover from another Saturday night on Kirkwood Avenue had yet to wear off. A few people jogged by Assembly Hall, the parking lot attendants organized their barricades, and the streets were still deserted save for a few freshmen walking back to their dorms with arms full of chairs, pillows and blankets.
A few hundred yards away sat Camp Crean, the area established last season where students waited -- sometimes overnight -- to get general admission seats. At first glance, there were only a couple hundred students waiting, resting and sleeping. The closer you got to Assembly Hall, however, the longer the line of candy cane pants stretched. By 3:30 p.m., still an hour before students were allowed inside, the line had snaked away from the hallowed arena, along the side of Cook Hall, Indiana's state-of-the art practice facility built in 2010, and eventually wrapped around the back and out of sight.
One group in line blared Indiana's new unofficial anthem, "This is Indiana," from a boom box that looked older than they were. Another group sat around on a set of chairs poached from a dorm while another was playing poker -- with a table and all.
As the line grew, more cups of Starbucks coffee and pizza boxes arrived, and more pillows, sleeping bags and blankets were being walked back to dorms and apartments. The final shifts for showers and sleep were being completed.
There were about 2,500 students waiting in all, some since 10 p.m. Saturday night.
It wasn't like this last season, when about 50 students waited for tickets to the Northwestern game. It wasn't even like this on Dec. 10, 2011, the day IU knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky.
But then again, nothing this year was like last season.
By now, the last three years of Indiana basketball are a fable across the Hoosier state. But to adequately show what Sunday's Senior Day meant to not only the team on the court but the seniors in the stands, you have to start with a man senior Jared Overman refers to only as "K.S."
After Kelvin Sampson was run out of Bloomington in February 2008 for his second set of major NCAA infractions, Crean was handed the keys to what was once a Cadillac job in college basketball. Between the time Sampson resigned and when Crean took over, a stretch of less than seven weeks, IU had been stripped of nearly all its parts and was sitting on blocks when the 2008-09 season tipped. Crean led IU to a 28-66 record and parked the Hoosiers at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in his first three years. But Overman didn't waver. He bought season tickets all four years.
"Those years were rough," the business management major says. "Those first three years, I don't know ... I don’t know why I always bought season tickets. I guess when it did change, I wanted to say 15, 20 years down the line -- who knows how many banners we can get from then on -- you'll always go back to these four years, the rebuilding years, and it's a special thing to say you were a part of it."
The rebuilding process was completed Sunday night when IU capped its largest one-season turnaround in school history with an 85-74 win over Purdue, giving the Hoosiers 12 more victories this season than in 2010-11. The reason? There are a few, but all roads lead back to freshman Cody Zeller.
He's the reason IU finished 24-7 this season.
He's the reason the Hoosiers are a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
He's the reason students arrived at 10 p.m. Saturday night, braced snow and 23-degree weather, and bypassed showers and sleep, all to get first-row seats.
"In years past, you would never see this," says junior Neil Bever, from Lagro, Ind. "It's shows how the program has turned around.
"Look at last year's team to this year's team."
Bever and his group of friends arrived at Assembly Hall at 10 p.m., nine hours before IU officially opens Camp Crean, and waited in their cars. But once he saw freshman Alex May lay claim to the first spot in line, it was a mad dash to the black double doors that separated Camp Crean from the final regular-season game.
At 2 p.m., Crean spoke to the crowd and thanked the group for coming, especially the seniors who endured the roughest stretch in IU history. If the Hoosiers had not qualified for the Big Dance, this year's senior class would have been the first since 1972 to never experience an NCAA tournament.
"Oh man, that would've been tough," Overman says.
For students like Bever, Overman and May -- guys who grew up listening to stories about Indiana's heyday -- the past few years were draining. Bever still thinks back to the 2001-02 team that lost to Maryland in the national championship game, the last time IU made it to the Final Four. He was 11. Zeller was 8.
But Zeller, Indiana's 25th McDonald's All-American, hasn't just re-energized the win column for IU; he resuscitated a fan base.
"You can argue that he's as important of a recruit as Indiana University's ever had," says former Hoosier forward Brian Evans, who was the 1996 Big Ten MVP. "IU was so down and the fan base was starving. To know for a year that he’s coming and then he's on campus and then the season started, there was so much anticipation. I think the promise that he brought with him brought more hype and he's lived up to it."
On Monday, Zeller capped a remarkable freshman season, during which he averaged 15.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, by being named Indiana’s eighth Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
The students waiting in line Sunday didn't want to anoint Zeller as the savior of IU basketball, but they weren't shy to admit he's the cog that keeps this team running. Last season, Overman felt this IU team was missing a 15-and-5 guy. Well, it found him. Zeller's post presence allowed Indiana to stretch its offense, which allowed Christian Watford to play more in his natural position, power forward. Indiana's 3-point shooting improved from 34.6 percent last season to 43.2 this season -- another product of having a low-post threat like Zeller.
Simply by history's standards, however, the weight of the Hoosiers' world was placed on Zeller's broad 18-year-old shoulders when he shocked the recruiting world two Novembers ago and committed to Indiana.
It's been 25 years since Indiana hoisted a national championship banner but the guys in line craved No. 6 like a late night pizza -- and most were born three years after the 1987 title.
Zeller was the latest in a long-line of heralded recruits to stay home, but he only knew about them from stories, YouTube clips and photos on Assembly Hall's walls.
Don Fischer, who has called Indiana games on the radio for 39 years, says only Damon Bailey and Steve Alford came to IU better groomed and with better resumes than Zeller.
"I just heard stories about them," Zeller says of Bailey and Alford, two IU legends who hailed from small towns, similar to Zeller. "I don't remember watching them. I was too young but just heard stories about them, clips here and there. Even guys like Calbert Cheaney (Indiana’s current director of basketball operations), I don’t remember that. The old people I talk to always talk about the days of the great players that Bob Knight had and the exciting times they had back then.
"I'm not planning on being the savior or turning around the program on my own."
That was then.
On Dec. 10, 2011, IU was toiling on the bubble three months before March Madness.
But it wasn't the bubble we've come to know and love this time of year. It was the bubble that would determine if Indiana fans bought into this season. The Hoosiers had already beat Butler in Indianapolis and N.C. State on the road, and sat at 8-0 with No. 1 Kentucky coming to town. A loss in the annual border rivalry, and IU fans would've walked out of Assembly Hall thinking the rebuilding process wasn't quite there yet. A win and ... well, a win could've changed everything.
Freshman Vickie Zupnik never paid attention to basketball growing up -- "I never knew what a shot clock was," she says -- but her father bought her season tickets anyway.
The Kentucky game fell around finals week and Zupnik had a biology test to study for. She tried to give away her seats. But her friends wouldn’t let her. They feared she would regret not going.
If you've watched any college basketball highlights this season, you know how this story ends. Watford nailed the 3 from the left wing. Indiana upset Kentucky. And the years of pent-up suffering was released when the students celebrated on Branch McCracken Court.
Hoosier basketball, which finished the season with three wins over Top 5 teams, became relevant again that night. And, as it had for decades before, it converted another fan. Zupnik hasn’t missed a game since. There, as much as anything, is your proof of Zeller.
Oh. Zupnik didn't do very well on her test the next morning, but she didn't mind. She found out why her father bought her season tickets. She found out what Indiana basketball was all about.
She's part of it now.
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