Indiana enjoying its return to the top

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On the otherwise Indiana-Midwest-spent-his-summer-in-the-gym translucent pallor of Cody Zeller's skin, the slash of angry red stood out on his chin.

"Cut yourself shaving?"

Zeller smiled. "Yeah, that's it.''

The token of disaffection actually was a gift from an unnamed assailant during a recent Indiana practice. To Zeller, the nick wasn't just a red badge of courage; it was a beauty mark, for both himself and the No. 1 Hoosiers.

"We were always working hard but this year, we have a lot more talent,'' Zeller said. "Practices were always competitive, but they're a lot prettier right now. There's just a lot more to work with.''

Yes, pretty is in the eye of the beholder and in Bloomington there is nothing more lovely than the preseason player of the year with blood on his chin. That last season's savior now has enough competition to get bloodied is a sign of how far things have come for Indiana and perhaps how far they still can go for the Hoosiers.

This is the season that IU fans have been waiting for, at times impatiently but mostly with incredible patience and understanding as Tom Crean pickaxed the Hoosiers out of the NCAA rubble.

Their faith, injected with hope last season with the cathartic upset of No. 1 Kentucky, is set to be restored as Indiana rejoins the rarefied air of college basketball.

From the Indianapolis Airport, where IU paraphernalia hangs next to Andrew Luck gear in the gift shops, to Bloomington, where fans gobbled up 17,000 tickets for Hoosier Hysteria in 90 minutes, the excitement is at a fever pitch.

Indiana is basketball centric on any given day. Starved for success for years, it is now desperate to bask in the good times.

Where once the athletic department offered upper-deck tickets for $5 to fill Assembly Hall, home games now have long been sold out. Where once disillusioned students accounted for only 4,000 tickets, they now take 12,000 seats.

The catch, of course, is to realize all of those expectations. The leap the Hoosiers are making this season is every bit as wide as the leap of faith the seniors took four years ago when they decided to walk into the morass.

Indiana has gone from "Yeah! We're back in the NCAA tournament" to "We're favored to win a national title" in the span of seven months, cementing its status eight days after Kentucky captured the 2012 crown when Zeller and Christian Watford announced they'd return to college.

Both Crean and his players insist they don't feel the weight of that pressure, that coming from the bottom up has made them appreciate the view, not gape at it.

"I know that Indiana basketball is a huge part of the daily existence for a lot of people. I know that,'' Crean said. "But as a coach you can't sit here and think, 'I don't want to let people down.' That's not pressure. Pressure is going on the road in the Big Ten with seven walk-ons and trying to convince them that they could win. And when they didn't, doing it all over again the next day. That's pressure.''

Crean was talking courtside in late October. That he was actually talking and not whispering was not lost on the coach.

Four years ago, he was hoarse after the first practice of the season, his voice weary from instructing, cajoling and yes, yelling at the collection of players assembled to wear the candy-striped pants.

Kyle Taber and his 32 career points served as the Hoosiers' foundation.

Now Crean has not just talent but experience. To cultivate the high-caliber freshman crew of Yogi Ferrell, Hanner Perea, Jeremy Hollowell and Peter Jurkin, he has legit upperclassmen. Watford, Derek Elston and Jordan Hulls especially have been through it all, good and bad. They were once the wide-eyed freshmen shouldering the burden of expectation. Now they're the wily old-timers.

"The biggest difference -- we hold each other accountable now. The coaches don't have to do it,'' Watford said. "We do it. It's not because we're preseason No. 1. It's because we expect even more from ourselves.''

Crean has seen that attitude manifest itself almost every day. When Elston was injured, one of his backups was having a lousy practice. Crean didn't get on him. The coach told Elston to do it.

"Today, I told Derek, 'Hey I know you're hurt. I know you didn't have this when you first got here, but now it's your turn,''' Crean said. "We made him responsible and he handled it.

"It makes my job so much easier. Sometimes you might have bad leadership, but you have something. When we started, we didn't even have bad leadership. We had nothing.''

Now seemingly the Hoosiers have it all -- the basketball world by a string, if you will. This season's high hopes already have begotten good tidings for the future. With the addition of Troy Williams, ESPNU has pushed IU's 2013 recruiting class up to No. 10.

It's just that pesky little matter of actual games. Indiana debuts against Bryant on Friday, with looming circle-the-date meetings later this month against perhaps UCLA (Nov. 20) and North Carolina (Nov. 27).

They may be new to this spotlight thing, but the Hoosiers are seasoned pros in sports clich├ęs.

"Coach does a pretty good job keeping us in the moment,'' Zeller said. "The national championship game is a long way away. We need to take it one game at a time.''

After his interview, Zeller even sheepishly agreed that he had hit close to all of the Crash Davis-to-Nuke LaLoosh truisms from "Bull Durham."

Not that anyone would notice.

If anyone personifies the reborn love affair between Indiana and its Hoosiers it is Zeller. Homegrown, wholesome and talented, he represents everything Indiana wants its team to be.

Though he insists he is treated like a normal student on campus, he's a normal student with a fake Twitter account and one hilarious YouTube video devoted to him.

Set to the tune of the pop song "Billionaire," it is an ode to Zeller's decision to return to IU that includes the chorus:

I don't wanna be a millionaire all that bad

Just keep getting allowance from my dad

I'll still be on the cover of sports magazines

Smiling next to Yogi and Tom Crean

Oh every time I close my eyes

I see myself in candy stripes

Yeah. I do my homework every night, oh why?

I swear so I can be prepared when I'm a millionaire.

Zeller is known as The Big Handsome, and in other circles that cut of his might be viewed as an imperfection, a blemish to the big man's handsomeness.

Not in Indiana.

There it's considered a sign that The Big Handsome is not just another pretty face and that the Hoosiers are done taking it on the chin.