It didn’t take long for Purdue coach Matt Painter to face the question.
What do the Boilermakers think about rival Indiana being picked as the Big Ten’s top team?
“I think everything that they have been able to accomplish, they have earned and they’ve done it the hard way,” Painter said Thursday at Big Ten Media Day. “When we took over at Purdue, we were in last place, too. So I understand that climb.”
Indeed, the Hoosiers have rebounded in a big way from the aftermath of the Kelvin Sampson scandal. IU is No. 1 in a slew of preseason polls, including the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll announced last week. They also will likely be the top team in the Associated Press poll, which will be released today.
The preseason poll of Big Ten media members also has the Hoosiers as the conference’s top team, and Cody Zeller is the preseason player of the year.
This time a year ago, IU was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten. So how does Tom Crean ensure his players don’t buy into the hype?
“Our team has had to deal with a lot of other hype that wasn’t necessarily positive,” Crean said.
“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 [the players), they continued to work. … They’re receiving a lot of attention [now] and we’re trying to keep our business-as-usual approach as much as we can … and deal with it as it comes.”
The Hoosiers have to deal with injuries as well as the preseason accolades. Freshman forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea missed most of the summer with a foot injury and re-injured it last week. And senior Derek Elston tore a meniscus during last Saturday’s Hoosier Hysteria event and will undergo surgery today.
Reports on Wednesday night said Elston could miss up to eight weeks, but Crean said, “We have a baseline of what we’re looking at, but you can never tell until they get in and do the work and start the rehab process with him.”
Elston had a similar injury in high school.
“He knows what’s expected of him and he knows what we do, and I think that will help him when he comes back. There won’t be a great learning curve,” Crean said. “In the meantime, people will have to grow into what there are trying to get to and at the same time do more with the veterans.”
The injuries in the frontcourt are offset by the return of Zeller and Christian Watford, both of whom considered leaving early for the NBA before option to return for a shot at a national championship.
“Christian Watford shows what happens when you continue to improve,” Crean said. “The biggest thing for Christian this year, if our team is going to get better, is he needs to model the consistency day in, day out, that he needs to be, to be at his best.”
And while Crean was reluctant to compare Zeller to other top players he’s coached, such as Dwyane Wade — “that’s for days when it’s all said and done” — he did praise the sophomore’s mental toughness.
“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,” Crean said.
Painter, for one, thinks Zeller — and the Hoosiers — have arrived.
“They just needed that ‘impact’ guy and I think they have that in Cody Zeller, who I consider the best player in college basketball,” Painter said. “They have a chance to contend for a Big Ten championship, and anybody who can do that is good enough to get to the Final Four and put themselves into position for a national championship.”