Cardinalmaniacs™ have been nervous every step of the way that we have reported here and in our monthly magazine about the recruitment of Washington, Indiana 6'11" premier post talent Luke Zeller. He has a host of scholarship offers from major college basketball programs all over the nation, and only the Cardinal have been foolish enough in the Pac-10 to venture into the heart of Big 10 country for this famed forward/center. To lure him away from the likes of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa or Notre Dame - all right in his backyard - seems like the stuff of fantasy; powers like Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville also loom large as obstacles. A few subscribers have even chided me for spending my time and efforts on this recruiting story that is so clearly destined for disappointment in Stanford fan circles.
But when the Card are calling on a consensus Top 20 national player who has an unblemished 4.0 GPA and a 1220 SAT, there is a responsibility for me to continue following the story. Stanford may be serious underdogs in this race, fighting as many as 30 schools for a hallowed opportunity with one of his five official visits, but it's a story worth following until Zeller declares death for Mike Montgomery and the Cardinal.
Though there is still a long way to go in this recruiting race, the versatile 6'11" talent tells The Bootleg that he is making big progress since his season ended. It was just three weeks ago that the Washington High School Hatchets saw their season end with a frustrating finish in the sectional finals, as they dropped 64-54 to nemesis Vincennes Lincoln. You might remember that it was Vincennes who stymied Zeller and the Hatches back in early February, when the Indiana junior superstar was held to three points and just a handful of shots in the game. In this critical postseason showdown, the rematch got off to a very different start with Zeller scoring the first five points in the game for a quick 5-0 lead. But Vincennes again put into place a suffocating defense that focused on denying Zeller the ball. He did not touch the ball again on offense the rest of the quarter. He did finish with 26 points and 12 rebounds in the loss, but bemoans the loss that continues a 21-year streak for Washington failing to clear the sectionals in the state playoffs.
"We just fell apart in the [sectional] championship," Zeller begins. "There were 6,000 people in the stands, which was the one cool thing, but we just didn't play really well. Our team chemistry wasn't that great. It really wasn't a close game. They were ranked #4 in the state, and we're #8, so it wasn't an upset. But we should be able to play with those guys."
The Indiana big man has been fighting tendinitis in his knees ever since last July, and took two weeks off after the season-ending loss. "You can play through it, but I would like to get it healed - back to 100%. I haven't had a break for the last six months," he notes.
Zeller is already back in the saddle, though, with a daily regimen of shooting 1,000 shots each day in the gym and hitting the weights with his younger brother, Tyler, who will be a high school freshman next fall. The elder Zeller currently weighs 225 pounds but is lifting five times a week and says he would like to hit 240 pounds by his senior year.
The off-season is an intense time of year with serious work toward improvement for this 2005 basketball talent, as with many other of his contemporaries around the nation, but Zeller has also been able to give his mental energy toward a task he had put off throughout his high school season. The recruit and his Washington HS coach agreed it was best for him to shut out all college queries during the season, and now the coach, player and family are giving ample energy and attention to the national list of college suitors.
"I'm getting there," the frontcourt focus says of his accelerated recruiting progress. "I'm down to about seven or eight schools. It changes a little some days, with one school jumping in and another jumping out, but most of them are pretty solid right now. I just realized that I have to take a couple official visits after the [NCAA] Tournament is over. I was thinking I could some during the summer, but I just found out that you can't take visits when you are not in school."
Washington High School has seven more weeks of classes left this semester, but Zeller says that he is not in much of a hurry.
"I can't sign until November anyway," he points out. "I hope to have it done by mid-October."
With a drum roll playing in your head, the question on every Stanford fan's mind is whether the Cardinal have survived his slashing down to that final seven or eight schools.
"Stanford is on the list," Zeller declares. "I just wish I could talk with the coach. I have talked a lot with [Eric] Reveno, and some with [Tony] Fuller. But I really am looking forward to talking with Coach [Mike] Montgomery."
While the Card are still somewhat of a longshot in this battle, the odds have just improved dramatically if they are one of perhaps eight schools vying for his final five spots.
"The official visits are for those [schools] that aren't close to home," the recruit says of his future trips. "I might not take all five officials."
The highly anticipated call from Montgomery is one that is carefully crafted by the Stanford coach, as is the case for the other college suitors hot on the fab frontcourt player's trail. A new NCAA rule allows a school to make one phone call in March to each recruit in their junior year, which is the first legal initiated phone contact allowed. When I spoke this week with Zeller, he had fielded calls from Illinois and Boston College, but a tidal wave of many more are coming, including the Cardinal.
"I used to email a lot," Zeller says of his communication with schools, including Stanford. "But I have a brand new computer and don't have the Internet hooked up yet. I like to tell people that it runs so nice that I don't want it on the Internet, where viruses will kill it, but the truth is that we are trying to get high speed access at home. That's not easy out where we live."
The recruit admits that a school like Stanford is a place he feels he still does not understand well enough. This phone call will be his first and final introduction to Montgomery before Zeller is likely to make his cut to a final five schools. The relationship between player and coach is a critical one for this recruit, so you can expect that this phone call will make or break Stanford's spot in that final cut.
"You just kind of sit there and listen," the high profile Hatchet star says of the March calls. "They have a lot to say - almost like a presentation. Afterward I jump in and ask questions, but usually I don't have many. They know all the things to say and don't leave much ground uncovered."
Another dimension of note is of course how the rest of the Zeller clan weigh in on Stanford versus other schools. The household is a close one, and there are several opinions for the oldest son to consider.
"My dad is just there to have things bounce off him. He doesn't even talk to me about [recruiting] unless I ask him. Really, he's the perfect dad when it comes to this recruiting process," the 6'11" son says.
While distance has long been the greatest fear for fretful Stanford fans and coaches in this recruitment, Zeller says that the issue has become less of a concern. As we reported last month, the recruit has learned through a friend at Butler that there is almost no time to come home to Washington when you are playing Division I basketball.
"The thing that comes up about Stanford whenever we talk as a family is the education," the recruit reveals. "My dad would feel a lot better about my future after college if I had a Stanford degree. He says the distance shouldn't matter. He says they can come watch me anywhere I play."
And where does Mom weigh in?
"My mom, well - she won't like hearing this, but she will have to grow up and accept the fact that I won't be home," the emboldened eldest son states.
We know there are still dining room discussions to come in the Zeller family to hash all this out for the distant Cardinal, and that famed phone call will weight heavily on the high school junior's upcoming school list proclamation.
Luke Zeller finished his junior season averaging 19.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game on 54% shooting from the field. He dished 50 assists on the year and swatted 62 blocks. Unfortunately this is just about the last you will hear about his basketball stats and talents until his senior season. The driven big man will spend his spring and summer away from the national AAU circuit, in favor of hometown individual workouts with his Washington coach, Dave Omer.
"AAU ball screws with your weight lifting and a lot of fundamentals," the wise student-athlete opines. "And you waste a lot of time traveling. Here at home, I can make my own hours."
You can expect to see Zeller in Indianapolis on April 17 for the Top 100 camp that brings the state's best talents together for a day of instruction and competition. The only summer event on his calendar would also be in Indy, with plans to attend the Nike All-American Camp.
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