BLOOMINGTON – Jordan Hulls is living his Indiana basketball dream, but reality keeps getting in the way. Road games. Inexperience. Facing future NBA players.
Big Ten basketball is brutal. “Unforgiving,” coach Tom Crean says.
Forget the John Wall super stud show. The Kentucky freshman will be a NBA multimillionaire next season. Hulls will not. His up-and-down performances are more typical for a freshman point guard.
No matter. Hulls is a starter, and today's struggles can become tomorrow's successes if he puts in the time and keeps the faith.
“I'm not disappointed in his play at all,” Crean says.
Hulls helped the Hoosiers beat Michigan a couple of weeks ago with crunch time free-throw shooting. He was a first-half sparkplug against Illinois. These are flashes of what last year's Indiana Mr. Basketball can do.
“Growing up in Indiana, it's a dream come true to be here,” he says.
Hulls is a 6-foot (maybe), 170-pound (maybe) freshman guarding 6-6 senior Jon Diebler of Ohio State and 6-5 sophomore Zack Novak of Michigan. These are not good matchups, but there are no good matchups against Big Ten opponents.
Hulls understands. He has goals and a blueprint for achieving them. It's why he watches YouTube clips of the NBA's Steve Nash and Chris Paul, point guards who play beyond their appearance.
“I see what they do,” he says. “I want to learn from the best.”
Learning comes in inconsistent doses these days. In two Big Ten home games Hulls averages 11.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 turnovers. In two conference road games it's 3.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.5 turnovers. He is just 1-for-10 from the field in conference road play, 5-for-13 in conference home games.
Still, Hulls has started the last five games, and IU is better because of it. He is not Isaiah Thomas, he will never be Isaiah Thomas, but he can shoot and handle the ball and make good decisions.
“You want the ball in his hands,” Crean says. “You want him on the court when it's time to win the game. You could see that early on (in the recruiting process). He has a real presence about him – that poise, the ability to play under pressure, the ability to shoot and make good decisions stands out right way. Then you get to know him and you realize there's no way you want to go into the future of your program without him.”
Crean sees Hulls in the mold of Travis Diener, the former Marquette standout now playing for the Indiana Pacers.
“When you have success with somebody like that,” Crean says, “you're always looking for the next guy who has those attributes. (Hulls) certainly does. I don't think he's even scratching the surface of what kind of player he could be.
Hulls and the Hoosiers (7-9 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten) face Minnesota (12-5, 3-2) Sunday afternoon at Assembly Hall.
The Gophers press and pressure and attack, and Hulls will face a heavy burden. So will all the freshmen (three started in Thursday night's loss at Michigan). That's a problem given that freshmen often fade in the second half of the season, mentally as much as physically. They are playing more games at a greater intensity under more demands than what they're used to.
“I worry about (hitting) the wall,” Crean says. “As coaches we don't address it with them, but we try to help them get through it.”
Minnesota, coming off a loss at Michigan State, features the Big Ten's most accurate three-point shooter in Blake Hoffarber (52.1 percent), best assist-turnover player in Al Nolen, second-best shot blocker in Ralph Sampson III (2.29 a game) and most aggressive defense (Big Ten-leading 11.2 steals a game).