Watford, Zeller will return to Indiana

Christian Watford and Cody Zeller helped Indiana’s basketball program turn things around this past season.

They have even bigger plans for next season.

The two players said Tuesday they would return to school next season, putting off the NBA and making the Hoosiers one of the Big Ten favorites.

”Cody is a player who, along with his unique skill set, makes everyone around him better,” coach Tom Crean said in a statement issued by the athletic department. ”He is going to have great opportunities ahead of him. … He will have the opportunity to be as good as any player in college basketball.”

Indiana could be as good as any team in the country, too.

With Zeller and Watford both in the lineup, the Hoosiers will return all five starters — including their top two scorers — from a team that reached the regional semifinals before losing 102-90 to eventual national champion Kentucky.

It was a remarkable comeback for Indiana, which hadn’t even posted a winning record in Crean’s first three seasons in Bloomington.

Watford’s buzzer-beating shot to beat top-ranked Kentucky in December suddenly put the Hoosiers back on the national map. Before the season ended, Indiana had also upset No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State — marking the first time in school history that the Hoosiers knocked off three top five teams during the regular season.

At 27-9, Indiana produced its highest victory total in two decades and the Hoosiers won two NCAA tournament games for the first time since losing in the national championship game to Maryland in 2002. It completed an undefeated non-conference season for the first time since 1989-90e and won a school record 18 games at Assembly Hall.

”I’m looking forward to earning my degree and to continue restoring the winning tradition at IU,” Watford said. ”I believe in coach Crean and our staff, and I am eager to lead my new teammates and build on what we started.”

The Alabama native chose Indiana after Crean decided to make him a cornerstone of a major rebuilding project that began after Kelvin Sampson’s phone-call scandal gutted the program. They were the first major NCAA infractions leveled against the school since 1960.

Watford has lived up to the hype. In three seasons, the 6-foot-9 forward has averaged 13.4 points and 5.8 rebounds. As a senior, he will be the Big Ten’s top returning scorer next season with 1,287 career points and is shooting 43.7 percent from 3-point range.

Keeping Zeller will be even more important for the Hoosiers, though.

After being selected the Big Ten freshman of the year by the league’s coaches, some thought Indiana’s 2011 Mr. Basketball winner might head for the riches of the NBA.

Instead, the 6-foot-11 center, whose brother, Tyler, will be in this year’s draft, decided to stay in school. Zeller led Indiana with 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game and shot 62.3 percent from the field, fourth in the nation and second-best all-time at Indiana.

Zeller’s impact exceeded his gaudy numbers. The ability to pass out of the post, block shots and be a go-to player when things got tough helped open things up on the outside — a combination that was difficult to defend.

Indiana will now add one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to a team that returns its top five scorers, which is a big reason the two NBA hopefuls decided to come back for one more season of college ball.

”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,” Zeller said. ”My college experience at IU has exceeded my expectations on and off the court. I look forward to playing at Assembly Hall next year in front of the greatest fans in the country.”