BLOOMINGTON -- Let's get this out of the way. Indiana's Will Sheehey is not a basketball jerk, although some -- can you say Purdue students? -- might disagree. He's “edgy” (Coach Tom Crean's words). He's “misunderstood” and “patient” (Sheehey's words). He's “not human” (freshman Stanford Robinson's words).
Yes, we'll explain all that.
Indiana's senior swingman is frantic, feisty and fit. Underestimate him at your own risk. And, yet, last year's Big Ten sixth man of the year is also, at the dawn of a new basketball season, under the radar.
Sophomore Yogi Ferrell got much of the preseason hype. Buzz surrounds a heralded freshman class highlighted by Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams.
Sheehey had 10 points, a career-high tying nine rebounds and a block in 24 minutes of Friday night's season-opening 100-72 win over Chicago State. It was an impressive performance for a guy making just his second-ever college start, but the spotlight centered on sophomore forward Jeremy Hollowell's team-leading 16 points and Vonleh's double-double (11 points, 14 rebounds) college debut.
No matter. Sheehey seeks another Big Ten championship, not fame. He wants to help the Hoosiers win, not fill a stat sheet.
“I want to take my game to the next level,” he says, “but I'm not trying to redefine it. I know what I do well and what I don't do well. I want to improve on what I do well, and make sure the things I don't do well are no longer a problem.”
Sheehey's over-riding message is clear -- “We're the reigning Big Ten champions, we know what it takes to be champions and we have to make sure we do that.”
Sometimes his delivery comes with the subtlety of cannon, such as during a summer workout when he threw out a pair of freshmen for botching ab work.
His point -- we do things right here, and little things matter.
The freshman response -- “We knew there was no playing around,” Robinson says.
Sheehey didn't come to Indiana from Florida to play around, a lesson he learned from his father (Mike played college ball at Syracuse) and an uncle (Tom played at Virginia). He developed a work ethic Crean calls, “uncommon.” He's driven to win at everything and you'd better believe Crean pushes that hard.
“Will Sheehey is one of the most gifted, one of the smartest players I've ever been around in my life,” Crean says. “He understands what it takes. He understands how to win. He understands what's going on on the floor. He has tremendous energy and will.
“The thing that's going to carry him over when he makes it to the next level is not his talent, but his intangibles and leadership. My responsibility is to bring that out constantly, and I never get tired of trying to pull that out of him because he's gifted. He's really gifted. He has to continue to understand what that is.”
Substance behind the image
The instant image of Sheehey as jerk centers on a Mackey Arena moment in a Hoosier blowout from a couple of years ago when he flexed his biceps at Purdue's Paint Crew student section. He might as well have drawn devil horns on a photo of Mother Teresa for all the infamy that produced.
“I get excited during games,” he says. “Everybody does. I don't disrespect anybody. I think I'm a little misunderstood. I think the media thinks I'm a hard (guy), that I like to fight, that I cuss all the time, that I'm crazy.
“That's not true. I'm probably the most laid back guy on the team.”
Yes, Sheehey might trash talk a little during games, quiz a ref over a call, or get a little animated over, well, whatever. Sure, opposing fans boos him. He's a perceived villain. He's fine with that.
And if in the past couple of years he seemed more likely to laser a glare than bend a knee, well, nice guys get crushed in the Big Ten.
“My niche here was to bring energy and play defense,” he says. “That's not easy. To do it, I had to fire myself up. If the team is sluggish, you've got to get them going. Then people want to say, 'Sheehey's this, he's that, he's crazy.'”
Sometimes maybe he was. Twice during pickup games while growing up in Stuart, Fla, Sheehey infuriated opponents so much they popped him in the face, knocking out a pair of teeth.
He's grown out of that. If he goes too far during games, Crean will tell him to dial it down, and he does.
“I just want to win.”
Sheehey is 6-7 and a lean 200 pounds. Last year he destroyed IU's generation-old fitness record, and despite nagging off-season injuries, he continues to crush all fitness challengers.
Take, for instance, a summer workout session conduction by Je'Ney Jackson, Indiana's ultra-demanding strength and conditioning coach.
“It was a hot summer day,” Robinson says. “We did a lot of running and at the end, we were dead tired, but he was still going. He started running again, on his own. When I saw that, I was like, 'OK, this guy's not human. There's no possible way you want to run more after doing a Coach Jackson workout.'
“I didn't understand it. Well, I understood it, but it was like, how can you do that? It makes you want to join along because you don't want him to make you look bad.”
Associate head coach Steve McClain isn't surprised.
“He's a high level athlete. Some guys can take a week off and you know they took a week off. He could take a week off come back and be first in the first race. He's different in that regard.”
Sheehey's Chicago State production bettered his exhibition averages of 11.0 points and 2.5 rebounds, plus last year's numbers (9.5 points, 3.7 rebounds), and basically duplicated his 10.6 scoring average for Team USA in last year's World University Games in Russia.
His niche has expanded now that his sixth man role has morphed into senior starter. He and Ferrell are the only returning key contributors from last year's Big Ten title team. As a leader on a young team, his No. 1 priority is to get the six freshmen to follow his hard-working example.
“He has had to be more vocal,” McClain says. “He's always been a guy who leads by how hard he runs and works, a guy who plays hard, cuts hard, shares the ball and makes open shots. He has to get other guys to feed off of that.”
Sheehey is capable of big nights -- he has scored as many as 22 points, totaled as many as seven assists, blocked as many as three shots -- but they likely will not define him.
What will he do for these Hoosiers?
Whatever is necessary.
“The biggest key in basketball is knowing your role and playing it,” he says. “Not everyone is LeBron James. Not everyone is a scorer. As long as everyone knows his role, do what you do well, this team has a lot of parts and it will be very fluid.
“We're a talented team and I don't think that taking more shots will make me a better player. Volume shooting is not my game. Efficiency is a key. If I can take less shots and make more of them, that's what I want to do.”
And then comes a moment of introspection. Sheehey is the oldest Hoosier after fifth-year senior transfer Evan Gordon and he feels that burden.
“It's tough being this old,” he says. “You miss it, being young, being in the dorms, being a little freshman.”
Sheehey as jerk?
Not even close.