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FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2012, file photo, Indiana's Cody Zeller dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game against Indiana Wesleyan in Bloomington, Ind. Zeller was the biggest reason Indiana spent last season rebounding instead of rebuilding. This time, he could be the difference between winning a national championship and being another good college basketball team. The Hoosiers have their first preseason No. 1 ranking in 33 years. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File))
BLOOMINGTON — Tonight at Assembly Hall, when No. 1 Indiana University opens its 2012-13 season against Bryant at 8 p.m., junior guard Maurice Creek can start to change his image.
For after three arduous seasons as the poor guy who has had to fight his way back to the court, he just wants to be known for something else.
Being a great basketball player.
Creek, who hasn’t played a game since Jan. 15, 2011, against Michigan when he tore his right patella tendon, has been portrayed as the brave soul who is destined to be a reserve in college. Some stories have said that his chance at an NBA career is finished.
“Everyone has their own way of talking,” the 6-foot-5 Creek said of those who expect him to be a shell of his former self. “My goal always has been to get to the next level. That is the same.”
As a freshman in the 2009-10 season, he had an incredible 31-point scoring effort against Kentucky that left him as the No. 1 freshman scorer in the country at 17.3 points a game. But three games later, he tore his left patella tendon after coming down on a drive to the basket.
He came back from that injury to play 18 games his sophomore season before tearing his right patella tendon in the same manner.
Then came an incident in which he fell down a flight of stairs and tore his Achilles tendon that forced him to red-shirt this past season.
It’s no wonder that people wonder whether Creek always will be damaged goods. “They were freak things,” he said after practice Thursday. “I actually feel better and more explosive than when I was a freshman. I feel different. I put in the hard work, and I am a lot stronger now. When I came here, I was 185 pounds. Now I am 200.”
As Indiana head coach Tom Crean has assembled some amazing talent to lift the squad to this season’s No. 1 ranking, it is apparent that Creek needs to play some dynamite basketball to reclaim a starting role. He came off the bench in Indiana’s exhibition win against Indiana Wesleyan. But he doesn’t want anything handed to him.
“Of course I know I am better than an eighth or ninth guy off the bench,” he said. “But I’ve always carried my weight, and I am here to make this team better, so I am going to do anything I can to help.”
If his natural scoring ability resurfaces in games, Creek’s minutes are sure to increase.
“He could write a book on adversity,” Crean said. “He has been through an awful lot.”
To keep Creek from feeling left out during his rehabilitation process, Crean gave him a role. “Coach wanted to keep me involved, so he made me a coach,” said Creek, who is from Oxon Hill, Md. “I am a coach now. I know what everyone else on the floor needs to do.”
Crean smiled when he heard Creek’s comment.
“Everyone wants to feel valuable,” Crean said. “But I am glad to hear him say that. I am going to hold him to that with his decisions on the court.”
Indiana senior forward Christian Watford said Creek, the player, still is very special.
“He looks good,” Watford said. “He is moving well.”
Like all of Indiana’s players, Watford watched as Creek was forced to find other ways to help the team.
“I know it was tough for him,” Warford said. “Any athlete wants to stay engaged.”
Watford said Creek did help his teammates in a role of a player-coach. “He took it seriously,” Watford said.
As it stands now, it really was just part of the healing process. “It was a life lesson for me,” Creek said. “I didn’t get down. I shed some tears, but I came back strong.
“And they’ve treated me here like family away from the court. They have been through a lot with me. Nobody is left behind on this team. You do not feel like you are alone.
“Now I just need to produce. Everyone has done what they had to do. Now it’s my turn to do what I need to do to make this team better. I can add to the pieces.”
Through it all, Creek said he always knew he would be back. “I am not a quitter,” he said. “People thought I would quit. I don’t quit on anything that I do. I am too strong a person.”
Watford and 7-foot sophomore Cody Zeller where named to the preseason Wooden Award list that is meant to identify the top 50 players in the country. “It’s definitely a great honor,” Zeller said. “Not a lot of people make the list.” Watford said, “It speaks a lot for what we’ve done.” ... Indiana opens the season without 7-foot freshman Peter Jerkin and 6-8 freshman Hanner Mosquera-Pera for nine games due to receiving “impermissible benefits.” Crean didn’t want to say too much about the suspensions, which he thought were unfair. “They don’t deserve this,” Crean said of his two freshmen. “What should matter most here in the welfare of the students.” ... Watford will wear senior Derek Elston’s jersey for one game tonight to honor Elston, who is out after having surgery to repair torn meniscus in his left knee.
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