By Zain Pyarali
Zach McRoberts probably wouldn’t be a first round pick in a basketball game at the park, and wouldn’t even be close to a top pick among Big Ten players. But the Indiana junior walk-on forward has arguably been one of the most valuable players for the Hoosiers since IU’s 80-77 overtime win against Notre Dame.
He doesn’t score much, he’s not flashy with his play, but he does the work that no one else wants to do. Against the Irish, McRoberts scored one point, but more importantly pulled down nine rebounds, seven offensive, including the decisive board off the Juwan Morgan missed free throw in the weaning seconds of overtime. A quick dish back to Morgan off that missed free throw ultimately led to the game-winning dunk.
In the first seven games of the season, McRoberts either played single digit minutes or didn’t even see the court at all. But that didn’t discourage him from working in practice every day.
“Zach is earning his minutes, not only in practice but he is doing exactly in practice what he does in the games,” IU head coach Archie Miller said following the win vs Youngstown State. “He’s giving maximum effort. He’s playing extremely hard. He is giving you a lot of hustle plays. A lot of winning plays.”
He played 12 minutes in the first two games during the early portion of the Big Ten schedule and 15 the following game against Louisville. The win against Notre Dame was McRoberts’ coming out party when he logged 31 minutes.
Now in his last four games he’s averaged nearly 26 minutes a game while scoring over six points a game and pulling down nearly seven rebounds.
“Working every day in practice whether it’s me or pushing guys in practice,” McRoberts said. “It’s not really about me, just staying ready and coming every day, be ready for the opportunity. Just causing chaos out there, just anything I can do — get steals, rebounds, whatever. Just helping the team make plays.”
McRoberts played his prep ball at Carmel High School in Indiana, and although he was the brother of an NBA veteran, Josh McRoberts, he wasn’t highly recruited. He received four offers, all from small division 1 schools and ended up committing and playing at Vermont his freshman year.
Following his freshman year, McRoberts transferred home to Indiana, just with the intention of going to school, not to play basketball. After sitting out for a year, he decided to walk-on with the Hoosiers. It took some time last season under Tom Crean for McRoberts to see the court, but he ended up cracking the lineup three times last season because of his work ethic.
“Every time he’s just working hard he gets more and more playing time,” Morgan said. “He just consistently does that, day in and day out, and as he does it would just make more and more plays for the team going forward. We always say Zach is the person you hate to have going against him, but love to have him on your team, and he showed why tonight — all the hustle plays, all the things people don’t like to do Zach does them.”
Following McRoberts’ game against Youngstown State when he scored seven points and brought down eight rebounds in addition to having a team best plus-31 on the floor, Miller hinted that a starting role might be in McRoberts future.
“As you get into Big Ten play, you are going to need you best guys that are playing the best out there, Miller said. “We will take inventory of what that is and make our decision going forward. But I like Zach in there right now.”
Miller liked McRoberts in his lineup so much that he was indeed rewarded with his first start of the season at Wisconsin.
While he thrives in the hustle plays and doing the dirty work, Miller said the next step for McRoberts is to try and become the best defender he can possibly be, and then the scoring will become more natural to him.
“For him, when you start to play that way, you are not worried about scoring or shooting or anything else, just doing your job,” Miller said. “Then the next thing that happens is you start to make a couple shots and make some plays on offense. It has been good to see him grow up.”