ROSEMONT, Ill. — In the third question of his press conference at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday, Purdue coach Matt Painter was effectively forced to heap praise on his school’s archrival.
That was the degree to which Indiana was the talk of Thursday’s festivities, which wasn’t all that surprising considering that the Hoosiers hold the preseason No. 1 spot in the USA Today Coaches’ poll just four years after the program was decimated by the Kelvin Sampson scandal and coach Tom Crean went 6-25 in his first year with a skeleton of a roster.
With their top five scorers back from last year’s 27-9 team that advanced to the Sweet 16, Indiana is almost everyone’s No. 1 nationally, so naturally, the Hoosiers are predicted to be the Big Ten’s top team as well. Hoosiers were officially named the Big Ten favorites in the conference’s preseason poll and sophomore center Cody Zeller was named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.
It’s the first time the Hoosiers are preseason favorites to win the conference since before the 1994-95 season. Indiana last won a share of the Big Ten title in 2001-02 and haven’t won it outright since 1992-93. Zeller is the first Indiana player to be named Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year since the honor was first bestowed in 1993-94.
“I think they have a very good team,” Painter said. “And I think everything that they have been able to accomplish, they have earned and they’ve done it the hard way. … They just needed that impact guy, and I think they have that in Cody Zeller, who I consider the best player in college basketball.”
Everything Painter said is inarguable at this point. The Hoosiers certainly had to endure a brutal gauntlet to get to where they are. They followed that 6-25 season with a 10-21 campaign and then a 12-20 mark. Last year’s squad was picked to finish anywhere from sixth to ninth in the conference, in large part because no one on the squad had much of an idea what success even looked like.
But then last year’s squad stunned No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State, went 27-9 and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. After the Hoosiers completed that resurrection, their conference foes have little doubt that they can handle being the conference’s and the nation’s favorites.
“Those players have been through crap,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’ve already got stepped on and spit on when they were freshmen and sophomores, most of them. The rookies that are coming in, (coach Tom Crean) will have to deal with that a little bit, but at the same time, those won’t be the keys to his team. The keys are going to be veterans. Zeller hasn’t been through the bad times, but he watched them up close and personal. I think it’s easier for them to handle that because those kids, the (senior forward Christian) Watfords and (senior point guard Jordan) Hullses have been through so much stuff.”
Elston out after returning to health
Indiana senior forward Elston confirmed at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday that he tore the meniscus in his knee. He will have surgery on Monday and could be out 4-8 weeks.
“It just kinda sucks,” Elston said. “I’ve been telling everybody I’m finally healthy and then this happens. It kind of lets me down a little bit, but coach (Tom) Crean has been huge in keeping my head up. The guys, they couldn’t believe it when they heard the news, but they’re there. Thoughts and prayers, they’ve had me in their thoughts and prayers. I appreciate that, and I’ll be on the court as soon as I know it.”
Elston said there wasn’t a particular instance that caused the injury. He had torn his meniscus as a high school junior and has been very sensitive to knee pain since. He started feeling discomfort before Hoosier Hysteria despite no particular stimulus.
“All my trainers were asking me, did I get hurt?” Elston said. “Did I make a move or a cut? I’ve got pretty bad knees anyway. I have in the past. I would’ve known if I got hit. I didn’t get hit. It just started swelling up one day. I noticed it, asked (athletic trainer) Tim (Garl) if he could do a little treatment on me. He did. Then at Hoosier Hysteria, I took myself out of the game, couldn’t really move. They drained my knee. It was clear fluid, so I didn’t really have any worries, but then the next couple of days of practices I really couldn’t do anything. I got the MRI and that’s when it showed up.”
Sheehey back, Mosquera-Perea still out
Sheehey back, Mosquera-Perea still out
Elston’s isn’t the only injury the Hoosiers have suffered through in the preseason. Some are healing faster than others.
Crean said junior swingman Will Sheehey returned to practice quickly after an ankle injury that kept him out of Hoosier Hysteria. However, Mosquera-Perea’s foot injury recently flared up and he’s still making a gradual return.
“We’ve just gotta go based on how his pain is,” Crean said. “What he can endure. There’s really no timeline on that. There’s no target date on that. Even when Derek has surgery, there will be a projection, but there’s no definitive. I think that’s the same with Hanner right now. He’s trying to absorb it as much as he can.”
Crean dodges question about status of Perea, Jurkin
The NCAA’s Eligibility Center frequently spends extended periods of time evaluating the eligibility of foreign players, and often doesn’t make final decisions until the beginning of the season or close to it. Indiana experienced that two years ago when center Guy-Marc Michel was declared ineligible a few games into the season because of his prior relationship with a French professional team.
Crean was asked Thursday if Indiana was having the same issue with Mosquera-Perea, a native of Colombia, and Jurkin, a native of the South Sudan.
Crean gave a non-answer that suggests the process is still ongoing.
“Everything we’re going through with those guys right now has been the same stuff that we’ve been going with ongoing,” Crean said. “We’ve always had a plan for how we deal with all of that. That’s how it’s been, the whole way.”
Crean was pressed for an answer about whether Mosquera-Perea and Jurkin had been cleared.
“Like I said, it’s all been a part of a plan from the beginning of how we’ve worked through with those guys. It’s never changed since they’ve been there.”