With Cody Zeller back, Indiana team to beat

Last season, Indiana fans believed.

During the 2010-11 campaign, I traveled the state in pursuit of Hoosiers supporters as I compiled a feature story on Tom Crean. The program would finish 3-15 in the Big Ten that year. Not even close to a postseason bid.

The fans I talked to admitted they were antsy, but they were also patient. Give Crean some more time, they said. Just wait a few years, they said. We’re getting closer, they said.

Few programs could match the loyalty the Hoosiers enjoyed in the seasons that followed the Kelvin Sampson scandal. They were rewarded with this season’s incredible turnaround, one that included upsets over Kentucky and Ohio State.

The Hoosiers lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, but they’d already won by regaining national prominence.

Next season, however, IU could return to the glory days.

On Tuesday morning, the university announced that Cody Zeller and Christian Watford had decided to pass on the NBA draft and return for the 2012-13 campaign.

On Tuesday morning, Indiana probably became the favorite to win next season’s national championship.

On Tuesday morning, Crean’s vision had been realized.

Zeller, a potential lottery pick had he decided to enter the NBA draft, could win the John R. Wooden Award next season. Watford played like an All-American forward during the NCAA tournament. With Zeller and Watford back, all five starters from last season will return. Add that talent to the top-10 recruiting class coming in -- one that features four-star point guard Yogi Ferrell.

Yes, the revolution will be televised.

But next year, the Hoosiers will not surprise. They’re No. 1 in ESPN.com’s early top 25 rankings for the 2012-13 season and they possess the same slot on a multitude of preseason polls.

That’s an unbelievable rally for a program that lost 15 Big Ten games in 2011.

The return of Zeller and Watford is also a boost for a Big Ten that could be America’s best league, again, next year.

Deshaun Thomas is back for Ohio State. Trey Burke returns for Michigan, which also adds big man Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson Jr. Michigan State brings in highly touted recruit Gary Harris, and versatile forward Branden Dawson could bounce back from a torn ACL to play the majority of the 2012-13 campaign.

The conference also has a few sleepers.

Trevor Mbakwe has been granted a sixth year of eligibility at Minnesota, a team that attained a scholarship for Mbakwe when Chip Armelin Jr. was granted his release from the program Monday.

Iowa recruit Adam Woodbury should be one of the best young big men in the league. Purdue’s Matt Painter loses a lot this offseason but he’s also signed a solid recruiting class. Sam Dekker, a five-star recruit from Sheboygan, Wis., joins Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans to form the core of what should be another solid Bo Ryan squad at Wisconsin.

But Indiana will stand out now that Zeller and Watford have decided to return.

The Hoosiers' last act on the sport's biggest stage came at the Georgia Dome, where it lost to Maryland in the 2002 national championship game.

Next season's Final Four is back in Atlanta.

How fitting.