BLOOMINGTON — Thomas Bryant deflected the leadership question. He was locked in team-first mode at Indiana's Cook Hall, which is what you'd expect given the basketball showdown with No. 18 Butler was just a day away.
Still, when your coach praises your leadership in such a strong way, as Tom Crean had done moments earlier, the question resonated like an OG Anunoby dunk:
What's going on?
Bryant, as passionate a player as you're likely to find, stayed on message.
“I’m focused on being with the team. There were some key things we wanted to get better at. I went into practice with my head held high to get better each day with my teammates.”
And then, “We kept the right mind set — to build each day, which we’ve been doing.”
So there you go.
For deeper insight we turn to Crean, who saw last month’s unexpected loss to Fort Wayne as a defining moment for Bryant, an All-America-caliber sophomore center building toward a big-time future, as well as the No. 9 Hoosiers (8-1).
"I don’t say this lightly,” Crean said, “but I’m not sure if I have seen, in 18 years as a head coach, in this three-week span coming back from Fort Wayne, that I’ve had a guy improve his consistent leadership as much as he has. That’s impressive.
“If he stays on that path, he’s becoming a complete player. When you become a complete player, you’re not the best player if you’re not one of the best facilitators, one of the best defenders, one of the best leaders. Those are the things that define how good you are.”
Bryant has always led by example. This season he averages 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds. He has 17 blocks, 11 in the last three games, as he’s ratcheted up his defense.
Still, it’s the way he’s taken charge of the team that has gotten Crean’s biggest attention.
“He’s always had a lot of energy and emotion, but he’s showing much better leadership. He’s been very consistent with his talk, his energy. There’s always a seriousness to him.
“They all took the loss to Fort Wayne hard, but a couple of guys took it personally. He’s one of those guys who did. There’s a difference.
“Juwan (Morgan) has been very good in leadership as well, but he was already heading in that direction. (More and more) Thomas understands — I have to be this way. It’s on-going. I’m very proud of him for that.”
Last year Bryant, as so many freshmen do, sometimes struggled with defense.
Not this year.
“He’s come a ton,” Crean said. “The things he struggled with – like ball-screen coverages — those aren’t issues anymore. His rebounding is raising his confidence in his defense because he knows we really need it.
“He took that as a challenge early in the year — not be a good rebounder, but a great one. Is he great yet? No, but he’s working towards it.”
Offensively the past two games, against lightweights Houston Baptist and Southeast Missouri, Bryant has become a shooting after-thought. He’s taken just two shots in each game, and failed to score in double figures, although he’s been a major rebounding (a combined 23 boards) and shot-blocking (eight blocks) presence.
“We have to be more cognizant of getting him the ball,” Crean said. “He’s being fouled. He’s rebounding at a high rate. He’s aggressive. He’s doing a good job with that. We need to throw it there a little bit more in the sense couple of times he was open and we didn’t get it there, but more there has to be a connection (between Bryant’s movement and teammates’ sense of when to pass him the ball).”
Added Bryant: “I’m not worried about the shot selection. I’m just here for the team. There are key things. You don’t always have to score, but you’ve got to rebound; you’ve got to be a good leader; you’ve got to get assists, block shots, do everything. Points have to come from everybody.”
As for No. 18 Butler (9-1), Crean was very much aware of the challenge.
“They are playing outstanding. Of all the Butler teams we’ve played, this is the best ball-movement team. The ball constantly moves. They can play through everybody.”