They say if you love something you have to set it free. In the spring of 2015, Zach McRoberts set the game of basketball free after his freshman year playing for the Vermont Catamounts. The former Carmel High School standout and Indiana High School All-Star needed a break.
McRoberts left Vermont, enrolled at IU, and became an Econ major. He has said that he just decided that he wanted to enjoy life as a student without the distractions of basketball. Yep, that’s what he said. It may have even been what he really thought at the time. But after a year as your average run of the mill IU student he had a change of heart.
Could it have been the fact that the year he took off was the same year that Yogi Ferrell led the Hoosiers to the 2016 outright Big Ten title? A run like that in Bloomington tends to consume the town and create something of a Hysteria. You may have heard about that Hysteria. You know, the kind of passion about basketball you wouldn’t expect to find in say, Burlington, Vermont.
McRoberts took it all in as a student along with the rest of the more than 40,000 enrolled at IU Bloomington. Except that he had something that no one else had — a chance to be on the team. You see, when McRoberts first enrolled at IU in 2015 he was asked if he’d be interested in walking on to the basketball team, but he declined. He was serious about moving on from the game, or so he thought. At least until Yogi and the boys started rolling through the Big Ten.
“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.”
Suddenly something was different. McRoberts had a change of heart. He said he felt like something big in his life was missing. Basketball came back to him. But it isn’t like he made it hard for basketball to find him. He moved from Vermont to the state commonly thought of as the mecca of the game. He’s not stupid. If you are going to set something free that you love you had better make yourself easy to find.
So one has to wonder, did he need a break from the game because he changed, or because the game changed on him? Basketball in Burlington, Vermont looks nothing like basketball in Bloomington. And that’s not an insult to Burlington. It’s just a fact.
IN 49 STATES IT’S JUST BASKETBALL, BUT THIS IS INDIANA
Perhaps McRoberts didn’t recognize the game anymore. Vermont played its home games at the 3,228 seat Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium. His gym at Carmel seats 3,870, and he would routinely play high school games in gyms that were nearly or even more than double the size of the Vermont gym.
As a senior at Carmel, McRoberts was named to the 2014 Indiana All-Star team. He was the backbone to Carmel’s repeat state championship teams. In his senior year for the Greyhounds he averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. Those are the kind of stat lines that are becoming familiar to IU fans.
Oh, and he was Carmel’s best defender. Many people thought he was the best defender in the state. In a 2016 Indy Star article his high school coach Scott Heady said:
“There was a list, 20, 30 guys, big-time college guys, guys in the NBA,” Heady said. “There were so many games along the way where we’d look at the stat line, and he may only have eight or 10 points, but he was absolutely the force on the floor.”
Despite his personal and team accomplishments, McRoberts was not a highly sought after recruit coming out of Carmel. According to ESPN he was not ranked nationally. When asked about his college alternatives he said that “I ended up going to Vermont. Northern Kentucky was the other school. Miami (Ohio) a little bit, Wright State, schools around the midwest.”
So his best alternatives to keep playing basketball were in states where it is just a game. And so that’s where he ended up, and he played that game. He played one season at Vermont, averaging 4.2 points in 27 games. Not bad for a freshman. By all accounts he was on his way to doing big things at Vermont. But it was just a game. And Zach McRoberts has never just played a game. Look at these other quotes from his high school coach Scott Heady from that 2016 Indy Star article:
“Zach’s always been his own guy,” Heady said. “He just kind of found his own niche, knew he was gonna do whatever he had to do to help his team win.”
“He works hard,” Heady said. “He’s a great teammate, he’s so unselfish, and he’s just all about winning.”
That’s not “it’s just a game” stuff. That’s Indiana stuff. McRoberts has even said that he likes to “be first on the floor”. In practice. You can’t just bottle that up and send it off to Burlington, Vermont. It will just sit on the shelf unappreciated collecting dust. So he came back.
When he came back and spent the 2015-16 season as just another IU student he said that he would just watch the games on TV and listen to all of his friends talking about it. As the season rolled on it became all that people were talking about. Some people call that Hoosier Hysteria. He said that “just watching the NCAA tournament, that competitive spirit, you don’t get that anywhere else.”
But he could have gotten that in Vermont. The Catamounts have made the NCAA tournament 6 times since 2003. Did you know that? Most people in Vermont didn’t either. And therein lies the problem.
If it comes back it’s yours.
Ultimately, the Hysteria got to him. Not long after Yogi and IU wrapped up their 2016 season, McRoberts contacted Indiana assistant coach Tim Buckley and let him know that he was interested. He joined the team as a walk-on. At the time he was asked what he believed that he could contribute to the program:
“Just pushing my teammates. Being able to make them better. Anything I can do to help the team win is kind of what I’ve done throughout my career playing. I’m not worried about stats or playing time. It’s just doing what I can to help the team win.”
That sounds like a coach’s dream right? It cannot be a coincidence that the walk-on was seeing meaningful minutes on the floor as soon as December 2016 under then coach Tom Crean, and now is evolving into an even more prominent role under new Head Coach Miller. Two different coaches, same result — the walk-on plays.
As Miller put it, McRoberts just “makes winning plays”. Like last second offensive rebounds over All-American Bonzie Colson and Notre Dame.
After the Youngstown State game Miller said that his struggling players needed to quit worrying about whether or not their shots are going to go in and just focus on doing their jobs. Translation — we need them to play more like Zach McRoberts.
Miller went on to say that his team needed to appreciate what goes into wearing “Indiana” across their chests. Maybe what they really need is to take a year off. Or go play a year at that middle school gym in Vermont. That seems to spark the passion. But the truth is that McRoberts always had it. He just had to come back home to find it.
Zach McRoberts and Indiana basketball. Reunited. And it feels so good.
Reunited, and it feels so good
Reunited ’cause we understood
There’s one perfect fit
And, sugar, this one is it
We both are so excited ’cause we’re reunited, hey, hey.
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Main photo credit – Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar