BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – The only basketball Zach McRoberts saw at Indiana University last season was in the intramural league.

McRoberts did not play for Tom Crean’s Big Ten champions. He didn’t even play for the intramural champions.

“Our team stunk,” McRoberts said.

Get this: McRoberts didn’t watch Crean’s team in person.

McRoberts did not want to spend the money on student tickets.

A year after walking away from a basketball scholarship at Vermont, McRoberts paid his tuition, room and books at IU and apparently didn’t want to ask his more famous brother, Josh, an NBA veteran, or parents for an extra hundred dollars. He was a student -- and merely a student.

“I don’t know where he was last year,” Crean said. “I don’t even know where he lived.”

Crean knows now. So does Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

On Saturday, as Indiana defeated Michigan State, 82-75, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, McRoberts completed one of the most improbable journeys in college basketball this season:

From pre-season afterthought to mid-season essential part.

From Mr. Intramurals to Mr. Glue Guy, a sturdy 6-foot-6 forward with the reach that extends to the rim and passing lanes

From a guy eating a McDouble cheeseburger to a guy who was occasionally asked to defend Miles Bridges, Michigan State’s McDonald’s all-American freshman forward – and did it well.

McRoberts scored three points, but played as if was worth about 23.

McRoberts took the starting lineup spot of a likely first-round NBA Draft pick (the injured OG Anunoby) and succeeded. Crean trusted him with 32 minutes – triple his season average.

The coach mentioned a McRoberts statistic that is not included in the box score. He led Indiana with 16 deflections, only two fewer than Anunoby contributed last Sunday against Rutgers.

He rebounded. He guarded. He set screens. He directed. He bounced his knees and elbows across every inch of Branch McCracken Court.

He’s not Anunoby. He’s not Collin Hartman, who is also out for the season after knee surgery. He’s not Juwan Morgan, who missed his second consecutive game with a foot injury.

Although McRoberts was an Indiana all-star at Carmel High School in suburban Indianapolis three years ago, he never will be any of those guys. Not as large as Anunoby or Morgan, not as experienced as Hartman, who was supposed to be Crean's only senior.

He doesn’t have to be. Not if McRoberts continues to play the same solid game he played against the Spartans.

“He brings the energy and does the little things that we need,” said IU guard James Blackmon, who hung 33 points on the Spartans.

Glue guy?

“Depends how you define it,” McRoberts said. “I just like doing the little things, helping my teammates out.

“I wouldn’t throw any titles on it yet. Just do anything we can to come together as a team and win.”

Don’t expect McRoberts to pat himself on the back. Twenty games into the season, he’s still thanking Crean and his teammates for the chance of a lifetime.

“The players have been great in my transition back,” McRoberts said. “I want to thank them and it’s just been a great opportunity.”

“He serves his team,” Crean said. “Sometimes he’s got to be reminded he’s a good player, too.”

His three points won’t earn many headlines, but his five rebounds, three assists, two steals, one block and incessant ability to do the right thing deserved recognition in this column.

In the first half, McRoberts played the most dazzling scoreless half of basketball I’ve seen this season.

Indiana was 18 points better than the Spartans during the 17 minutes McRoberts was on the court. He’s a creative player but even McRoberts has not learned how to score without attempting a shot.

By making the wise play and never the dumb play. No need to check the turnover column. On an Indiana team that has had issues making careless play, McRoberts never lost the basketball.

In the second half, McRoberts exploded – for one shot.

It was a three-point shot.

It was good – only the third shot from distance McRoberts has made this season. Remember, McRoberts has averaged less than one field goal attempt per game, even while getting nearly 11 minutes on the court.

It was as loud as Assembly Hall got all afternoon. It pushed Indiana’s lead to 57-39. The advantage moved to 20 on the next possession when McRoberts fed Robert Johnson for a layup.

The Hoosiers held on from there, watching their 20-point lead shrink to four before pushing back for the 7-point victory.

Blackmon played as if he was determined to shoot his way into the NBA Draft, making four of six three-point shots in the first half. He added two more shots from distance in the second half, finishing with 33, tying his career high.

Without Anunoby, Blackmon will have to play like one of the best players in the Big Ten if the Hoosiers (14-6) expect to climb out of the hole they created in the conference race by losing their first two home games to Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Crean’s team has won three straight in the league, sitting a 4-3, behind Nebraska, Wisconsin, Purdue and Northwestern.

But Crean, Blackmon, Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson and the rest of the Hoosiers will need to McRoberts to play with that edge for the next two months if the Hoosiers expect to maintain their spot on the plus side of consideration for the NCAA Tournament.

That’s 25-to-35 minutes Crean must fill. Expect McRoberts to fill most of them.

“There’s not a textbook for it,” Crean said.

It’s back to the road for Indiana. The Hoosiers visit Michigan Thursday and then play Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Jan. 29. Their next home game is Feb. 1 against Penn State.

Neither Anunoby nor Hartman will be back. Morgan should be. Zach McRoberts should be, too.

“The facts are the facts,” Crean said. “We’re without these guys and this is what we have to do to make ourselves better, this is what we have to do to win the game and we’ve got to do it with even more urgency.”

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