Walking up to Assembly Hall early on Thursday morning, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean couldn’t believe the line of people waiting to buy tickets for his team’s game that night ... an exhibition game ... against Indiana Wesleyan.
He especially noticed one guy who had other things on his mind than basketball. “He was studying for a neuroscience exam,” Crean said. “Wow! I can’t even spell it.”
That’s what the nation’s No. 1 ranking will do for you.
It also makes recruits give you a second look, and a third, and a fourth.
That’s great for the program and it has led to a sold-out season, other than the holiday period when fans are offered Twinkies in the form of Ball State, Mount St. Mary’s, Florida Atlantic and Jacksonville.
No. 1 rankings, though, are fleeting, unless a team has compiled a roster full of “Go Directly to the NBA” cards. Do not pass “Go,” and play another college season, at least not if you’re taken in the first round.
Indiana is not such a team.
Sure, the talent is major. Yes, Indiana looks very capable of a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Hoosiers have guys who will do well in the NBA.
Let’s just temper things a bit with a few notes of reality.
The Hoosiers have all their players back from a team that went 11-7 in the Big Ten last season and finished fifth.
Think of it this way for a moment. What if a coach had all his players back from a 7-11 squad the previous year? You might be thinking that’s the good news, or that’s the bad news.
Over the years of covering college basketball, I’ve usually found that players make improvements in very subtle ways. For example, a player who shoots 63 percent at the free throw line works very hard during the off-season and comes back to shoot 74 percent. He no longer is a target in a close game in the final minute. That improvement makes the team better.
Still, players tend to be what they are. Their strengths and weaknesses don’t completely shift in a year’s time, not the way a football player can pile up strength and gain weight.
My point is that patience should be in order when it comes to Indiana this season. Don’t be shocked if this team drops a game early to a UCLA or a Georgetown or a North Carolina.
By January, Indiana could be out of the top 10. It really doesn’t matter.
Crean has to navigate his charges through a very tough conference schedule. Last season, Indiana had a span where it lost four of five games during conference play. The Hoosiers were 3-6 on the road in the conference.
Teams such as Ohio State, which won 31 games last season, and Michigan State, which won 29, aren’t going to turn into Little Sisters of the Poor.
This team is going to take its lumps, even with all five starters back.
The key, in my eyes, will be blending Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell and Maurice Creek into the mix without disturbing the great rapport the team had in last season’s NCAA Tournament. With the way 7-footer Cody Zeller can run the court, and with Ferrell’s passing skills and darned-the-torpedoes tempo, it creates another level of pressure that opposing defenses are going to have a hard time trying to handle.
Creek, if he can stay healthy, puts another explosive guard and scorer into the mix. That added depth also will allow Crean to substitute more frequently, and it allows him to turn up the defensively pressure without worrying about his players running out of gas.
The other side of that equation is that when you give a new, or returning, player more minutes, somebody has to be playing less. If the guys all have the “whatever is best for the team” attitude, then you have something special. Getting to that point, though, can take some time.
Time is something that Crean has on his side. He has until March to put it all together.
As fans, the joy will be in watching the process, not the rankings.
On Friday, against Bryant at Assembly Hall, that process begins.
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 379-5632.