BLOOMINGTON -– Tom Crean ain't letting off the coaching gas pedal. Let's make that clear right now. He did it once -– last year in the second half against Evansville -– and vowed never to repeat that mistake. The same goes with his Indiana assistant basketball coaches. Nice guys get invited to ice cream socials, walk little old ladies across the street, and save cats stuck in trees.
Warriors win national championships.
By now you know a bunch of preseason polls and publications pick IU –- which returns its top five scorers and adds one of the nation's best freshman classes -- as No. 1. A year ago, the Hoosiers were picked near the bottom of the Big Ten. Yes, that's a huge jump, and well received by those in Assembly Hall.
“Being ranked like that, (the players) like it,” Crean said. “I do, too. It's kind of cool.
“I don't think it fazes our guys. They'll respond to it. Along the way, some will be waiting for us to stumble. How do we respond to that?
“We're a bunch of driven guys. The coaches will keep pushing and prodding to make them better.”
Crean pushed and prodded during his annual “A Night With Coach Crean” event at the IU Auditorium. He hit on a number of topics – life, family, responsibility, education, motivation, inspiration, and more.
When it came to basketball, Crean provided examples of that drive. For instance, he said Cody Zeller and Will Sheehey have improved the most. He also stressed that every Hoosier has improved.
“Cody and Will are neck and neck for most improved player on the team,” he said. “Those two have made the biggest jumps from the end of the year to today.”
Keep in mind that Zeller earned All-America honors as a freshman last year and likely would have been a lottery pick if he had entered the NBA draft last spring.
The plan for Zeller was simple – get him to such a high level of performance (and while Crean didn't mention this, it certainly will include three-point shooting, something Zeller never attempted last year) that no team can stop him.
“We had to get to the point that no matter what you do in your office at Purdue, at North Carolina, at Butler (all teams IU will face this season), that Cody can go above and beyond that. That there's no real plan because he's so good in his fundamentals that he takes his game to another level.”
As for Sheehey, Crean had the numbers to back up his claim. The junior swing man destroyed the annual VO2 test that measures a player's fitness level. Basically, you get on a treadmill and go as hard as you can for as long as you can until you cave.
Crean said senior guard Jordan Hulls “set the modern record” by lasting 12 minutes and 56 seconds. He said former IU guard Jim Thomas (who played from 1979-83) had the all-time record of minutes.
Then Sheehey rolled in and went 14:06.
“He jumped off the treadmill,” Crean said. “He didn't fall off the treadmill. There were a couple of guys there who were convinced he could have gone another 30 seconds to a minute.”
Perhaps the biggest mystery of the upcoming season is the state of oft-injured guard Maurice Creek. He was once on a fast-track for the NBA until two knee injuries and a torn Achilles tendon cost him two seasons. He's working his way back. Crean admitted he's gone slower with Creek's return “because I don't want him to go through that again.”
“He's getting better. He's not where he was, and he might not get to that. He has to get a lot stronger. He's got to keep getting that (tough-minded) mindset. His legs are not where they need to be, but it's great to watch his confidence.”
Crean added that Creek will have some rough stretches on the court and “I have to live with that. I love the guy.”
Crean said the three keys for IU this season are getting stronger, improving fundamentals and improving defensively. He said all three areas are getting better, but more work is needed.
Look for at least one freshman to start this season, with the likely candidate being point guard Yogi Ferrell. Crean praised Ferrell's fundamentals and approach and the fact he's played on championship teams, including a pair of state titles for Indianapolis Park Tudor.
Power forward Hanner Perea still has his foot in a boot because of an injury and is just lifting. Center Peter Jurkin is targeted to backup Zeller. Small forward Jeremy Hollowell is looking solid.
A student asked Crean if IU would ever resume its series with Kentucky. The teams won't play this season after failing to agree on a location. Indiana officials wanted to continue the home-and-home arrangement. Kentucky officials wanted to switch the games to Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We'll wait for them to come to their senses,” Crean said. “It's up to them. I think it will turn and become a home and home … In our lifetime, they'll be back here.”
Perhaps, but the big focus now is on championships. And it starts, but certainly doesn't stop, with that gas pedal.