Some might see all the hype surrounding his team as pressure. Indiana coach Tom Crean does not.
Indiana is the consensus No. 1 team in the nation as the college basketball season starts tonight. The Hoosiers open by hosting Bryant.
Meanwhile, sophomore center Cody Zeller is the consensus Preseason Player of the Year after averaging 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in his initial college season while helping Indiana to a 27-9 record and a berth in the Sweet 16, where it lost to eventual national champion Kentucky.
Though Indiana is drawing the most national attention since the controversial firing of legendary coach Bob Knight in 2000, Crean says it has not and will not change him or his team.
He believes there was more pressure last season when Indiana became a big national story as it broke through in Crean's fourth season. The Hoosiers had posted records of 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20 in the three years following the firing of Kelvin Sampson as coach and the NCAA sanctions he left in his wake. There was talk heading into last season that Crean, despite having seven years remaining on his 10-year contract, was in jeopardy of being fired with another losing year.
"Our team has had to deal with a lot of other hype that wasn't necessarily positive," Crean said. "I think it's easy to look at the couple of years we started and say, well, Indiana was down and Indiana wasn't doing this or that and that's all true. The target of being an Indiana Hoosier has never changed, and Indiana is synonymous throughout the country for being a lot of things in basketball, and it was always a big deal when you were playing Indiana or Indiana was coming to town and that hasn't changed.
"Will it grow some? Maybe. But I think the bottom line is a year ago when there really weren't those outside voices talking in a totally positive light about where the team was at, that didn't faze them, they continued to work. They might respond here and there but it didn't faze them."
Crean says his team has been driven throughout the preseason after getting a taste of the spotlight last season. The Hoosiers showed they could beat anybody in the country as they knocked off Kentucky 73-72 in the regular season. The only other team to beat the Wildcats in 2011-12 was Vanderbilt.
"The work ethic I see from this team is the same thing as last year," Crean said. "There is no question that they're receiving a lot of attention and we're trying to keep our business-as-usual approach as much as we can inside the halls of the building, and you keep the regularity that you have to have and deal with it as it comes.
"The bottom line is when those guys hit the practice floor or the weight room, or when they go into the film room, they're working toward where they want to work, none of that matters. What matters is, are they challenging each other? Are they competing? Are they absorbing the competition and are they hungry to get better? I don't see any sign of that not being the case."
Having a good work ethic and mindset are always pluses. Of course, it also helps to have talent and Indiana has a premier player in the 7-foot, 240-pound Zeller.
Zeller was ninth in the nation in True Shooting Percentage (66.5) last season, 14th in Offensive Rating (126.8) and 22nd in effective field-goal percentage (62.3). He also finished ninth in the kenpom.com Player of the Year standings and is the top returnee this season.
I don't think Cody is somebody who has responded to pressure. I think that's what makes him as mentally tough as he is at his age," Crean said. "To me, that's never wavered. He's not easily rattled. His confidence is high, but I don't see anything from Cody that would make you think he thinks he's arrived or achieved greatness. He's not like that."
Defenses will have a hard time collapsing on Zeller this season because of the presence of senior guard Jordan Hulls, who averaged 11.7/2.5/3.1 last season. Hulls was one of the best shooters in the nation, ranking 10th with a 66.3 True Shooting Percentage, 14th in effective field-goal percentage with a 63.0 mark and 72nd in offensive rating at 120.4. Indiana also returns two other double-digits scorers in senior forward Christian Watford (12.6/5.8/1.3) and junior guard Victor Oladipo (10.8/5.3/2.0).
"Jordan Hulls has been a classic example of what you want your program to be from start to where it is right now," Crean said. "He's never come in and wavered one day in his work ethic. You can probably count on one hand the number of days he's taken off out of 365 days a year. He's been a great leader and he sets an example that the rest of the team follows."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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