Image courtesy of Mike Flasterstein
Hoosiers learning to deal with top ranking
Ask anyone around Indiana University’s Bloomington campus about this season’s college basketball landscape, and that person is likely to have an opinion or two to share – in all likelihood, that opinion will include a statement or two about the Hoosier basketball team. As a matter of fact, for the first time in about five years, at-length discussion about Indiana is a fixture of not just the regional landscape, but the national one as well. The Hoosiers find themselves as a top-10 team for the first time since 2007/2008’s D.J/E.J team lead by D.J White and Eric Gordon earned that honor.
This team goes a step beyond that though, as it opens the season not with just a top-10 ranking, but the #1 spot in the country for the first time since 1979. The Hoosiers won the national championship the following season.
Indiana’s players are aware of the significance of such a high ranking, and despite being subjected year-in and year-out to a hometown spotlight reserved for players on the IU basketball team, they’ve faced a different type of attention this year and the added scrutiny that comes with it. There have been positives to all the attention, but the upperclassmen seem resolved to keep the players grounded and mindful of how far the program has come.
“Around campus, people come up and say they want their pictures taken with the #1 players in the nation,” Derek Elston said of the challenges a top ranking presents. “It’s all fun, but it’s something you take in stride, thank them and head back to practice and things are as if we don’t have that ranking.”
“We still have that sense of urgency to us,” he continued. “We know we fell short of what we expected last year, (a top ranking) means nothing to us. We’re just going to go out with a chip on our shoulder, play like we had been playing and that’s going to take us a long way. When you have that number one ranking, you get the best shot from everyone you play. We realize that it’s going to be a fun year but a tough season.”
Not an easy mindset to maintain to be sure, but for the time being, it sounds as though the Hoosiers are on the right track.
Injuries a factor for two upperclassmen
With so much attention being paid to the players who contributed major production in their time on the court last season and to the promising freshman class that looks to provide some added on-court depth for the Hoosiers this season, it’s easy for a player who has yet to piece together a full season of basketball – despite four academic years at Indiana University – to slip from the spotlight. For many observers, Maurice Creek has done just that.
The Hoosiers’ abundance of wing depth coupled with Creek’s chronic leg issues have relegated him to a degree from many conversations about the team’s most talented wings – a list that includes Will Sheehey, Victor Oladipo, Remy Abell, Jeremy Hollowell and even Austin Etherington and Jordan Hulls. Tom Crean seemed to enforce that idea to a degree when discussing Creek’s probable role at B1G Media Day in Chicago.
“It’s really like having – and I don’t want to call him a freshman – but when you have not played a full year and nothing has been stretched together, it’s like having a new player,” Crean said. “He’s a great kid but it’s like having a new player and our fans need to remember that, media needs to remember that and I need to remember that, because it’s just the way it is.”
“(Creek) has got to understand that he’s held to a very high standard defensively,” he continued. “He cannot look at what he may not have athletically or strength-wise, but what he’s got to have tenacity-wise. His offense has been very good but it’s got to be those other aspects that he’s got to be good at too. There’s no specialist role, he’s got to bring it, and he’s learning that.”
The point that Crean makes is a salient one. Above anything else, Indiana’s players have been made to grind on a daily basis to maximize their potential and skills, and Creek’s struggle to stay healthy has stopped him from doing that to the same extent as his teammates. More than anything, it sounded as though Crean is still working to instill the same type of consistent mindset in Creek as he has in the rest of the Hoosier team – the mindset that allows them to perform with maximum effort for every minute of every practice, every film session and every game.
Crean also made an important point that that’s worth highlighting: despite some struggles in other areas, Creek’s offense has been good. The fact that Crean is saying Creek won’t see playing time in a specialist role makes me think that he’s being held back from that only because the coaching staff is working to get him to play beyond the ‘specialist’ mantle.
I don’t believe it’s because his offense hasn’t been good enough to allow him to be an offensive threat when he sees the floor – remember, he didn’t have the mindset that Crean is looking for when he scored 31 points against Kentucky his freshman year.
The rest of the team has improved around him to the point that its understandable that the Maurice Creek of three years ago wouldn’t see the playing time that he saw his freshman season on a team that won 10 games. That being said, Crean’s statements today make it seem that if Creek progresses in his mindset the way his coaches are looking for, he’ll have a role to play for this year’s Hoosiers.
Maurice Creek will have some company in his rehabilitation as Derek Elston – a senior and last year’s most experienced backup big man – will miss the early portion of the season after suffering a torn meniscus during last weekend’s Hoosier Hysteria festivities. Elston was disappointed that he won’t be able to contribute to the team in the early going, but remained upbeat when asked about his outlook on the season.
“I went this whole summer telling everyone I was healthy and I was,” Elston said. “I was in good shape and back where I needed to be and to have this happen is kind of frustrating … but I’ve been through this, it’s not like I’m going to be out for the season so I’m pretty happy about that. Coach Crean and the guys are doing a good job keeping my head up.”
The Hoosiers could really use Elston back sooner rather than later – Crean avoided answering a question about Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin’s eligibility, and the frontcourt gets thin in a hurry without those three in the IU rotation – but it sounds as though Indiana basketball hasn’t seen the last of Derek Elston quite yet.
Both players have shown the ability to swing games in the past and if both are capable of contributing to their potential this season, the Hoosiers will certainly have an easier time fulfilling expectations.
A new ‘Big Handsome’?
Interactions at B1G Media Day weren’t all stone-cold serious, the players didn’t seem to have a problem cutting loose a little when asked questions slightly off the beaten path. One such topic was Cody Zeller’s title as “The Big Handsome”, which came under fire when a journalist good-naturedly ribbed him about his checkered shirt and striped tie.
“My mom picked this outfit out!” Zeller exclaimed, drawing a hearty chuckle from the assembled crew. Well then.
Zeller’s attire wasn’t alone in garnering attention, as Christian Watford appeared to don the same suit he wore to the ESPYs – complete with the gold ‘Jimmy V’ lapel pin. For comparison’s sake, Derek Elston, Zeller and Jordan Hulls all wore khaki pants and a button-down shirt with a tie. Elston, though, sounded as though he wasn’t surprised.
“(Christian) told me he was going to be showing up in his nice suit and, I mean, that’s just Christian,” said a bemused Elston. “We all have our personalities and styles, but you like to see Christian come out and look the way he does – what can you say?”
“There wasn’t too much (teasing from the other players),” Elston continued. “He looks good though … he looks good.”
When Zeller was asked about how he felt about Watford’s duds outshining his, he responded lightly.
“Are people afraid he’s going to steal my (‘Big Handsome’) title?” Zeller said with a chuckle. “I think I look pretty good in my shirt and tie here.”
Is there a new ‘Big Handsome’ in town? Watford didn’t go that far, saying only that he hadn’t caught flak for being the best dressed Hoosier in the room.
“That might change when we get back on the plane, though,” he admitted.
Watford was asked one other fashion-related question on Thursday, although this one also had to do with his performance on the court.
Last season, Watford struggled with losing contact lenses during the course of a game – several times being forced to check out to replace the lost lens before he could reenter.
Given the frequency with which that happened – and his distinctive beard/burgeoning ‘fro combo – it made to me an astonishing amount of sense that Christian Watford should be the one to bring back the ‘Big Game James Worthy Memorial’ basketball goggles. Cody Zeller agreed.
“I’ll start working on that,” he said after laughing out loud. “That’s a great idea.”
Derek Elston was similarly amused at the idea, but sounded less optimistic.
“I don’t think he’d go for that,” he said. “Whenever Christian has to do something, whether he’s wearing a mask or something’s up like that, he wants no part of that. Anything that distracts him from the player he is, he’s not a big fan of that.”
With a split jury, I approached Watford himself and asked how he felt about pioneering a throwback look that could make him the new face of Indiana University basketball.
“No man,” he said as he shook his head, while looking at the ground. “Never ever.”