Derek Elston (pictured above) spent the summer mentoring new big man Peter Jurkin, as part of a setup to help Indiana's freshmen get more comfortable.
Less than 15 days from Hoosier Hysteria, the overriding image of the No. 1 basketball program in the country might be of two young men throwing a baseball back and forth.
One is a senior from Tipton, Ind., a few miles north of Indianapolis, with a sleeve tattoo running halfway down his left arm. The other is a wiry 7-foot center from the country now known as South Sudan, and he surely had no more than a basic introduction to baseball before this summer.
Together, the pair represent Indiana’s present, and immediate future, and a new way of doing things that the Hoosiers hope will help them to a No. 1 ranking at the end of the season, rather than the beginning.
It has been 196 days, give or take a few hours, since Indiana’s whirlwind 2011-12 season ended with a Sweet Sixteen defeat in Atlanta. In the week after that loss, even before Kentucky had started cutting down nets in New Orleans, Indiana was already being touted as a Final Four-caliber team this winter, the root of a buzz that’s never subsided in Bloomington, surrounding the once-great program based here.
Will Indiana find that greatness again by next spring? That’s the question that’s followed the Hoosiers around since.
There seem to be two primary undercurrent questions in trying to answer that larger one:
First — can Indiana learn how to behave like a favorite, after so many years acting as an underdog? Even last season, Indiana’s players wore that role on their sleeves like a badge, something they said motivated them endlessly. That well runs dry this year. Can the Hoosiers replace last year’s mentality with one more suited to a team with Final Four aspirations?
Second — Indiana loses four respected seniors, four players who had been through quite a lot together and brought vast experience in dealing with adversity (Kory Barnett would be hard to consider departed, since he’s still working in the program as a graduate manager). The Hoosiers must find a way to adapt in four talented replacements while maintaining a level of team chemistry that was both remarkable and crucial one year ago.
The first concern can only be answered with time and results. Will IU learn how to play like a favorite, how to avoid ugly upsets, how to put away feisty but clearly inferior opponents.
Indiana can only prove itself capable of that shift in mindset and behavior with on-court results.
Dealing with that second question can’t really be accomplished in the public eye though, and therein lies Derek Elston’s baseball lesson.
The Hoosiers tried something new with their freshmen this year, in part to bed all four rookies in comfortably and in part, perhaps, simply because they can.
For the first time in Tom Crean’s tenure, Indiana has a four-year senior class that can talk about the process behind winning, what kind of work ethic, focus and drive it takes to achieve the kind of success expected here. As Jordan Hulls put it, this summer was used to teach these four freshmen “how practices are supposed to be run, how you’re supposed to prepare for practice, what you’re supposed to eat, how you dress, what you wear, everything like that.”
So this year, every rookie got a mentor or two, a couple of veteran players on the team tasked with simply helping them get comfortable, offering advice about basketball, school, really anything they could.
Peter Jurkin got Elston.
Because of his heritage, because of an injury that kept him off the AAU circuit in 2011 and because he played high school ball in North Carolina, Jurkin was probably the least well-known of the four 2012 signees still on the team, even to Elston. So a senior started this summer by just trying to get to know a freshman.
“What I would do, I’d bring him in here, and I just got to know him,” Elston said. “I asked him questions, how it was like at home, while we were just throwing a baseball in Cook (Hall).”
What Jurkin didn’t realize was that Elston was also working with the big freshman on his hands, a hiccup in his game this summer. Jurkin had struggled to catch the ball when it was fed to him, and to hold onto it when he did catch it, so Elston was teaching Jurkin without telling him so. According to Elston, it worked.
This mentoring setup probably isn’t a novel approach, but it’s a smart one, because it seems to be working. Judging not just what players said yesterday, but how they acted and interacted with one another, this team has had little trouble adapting four new personalities into the team dynamic.
Indiana has to change to survive, even at the top — especially at the top. The one-year-old blueprint for success must be revised and re-crafted, if the Hoosiers are to realize their immense potential. And while it can, this senior class must pass on the lessons it has learned, to set a pattern the future.
The challenge ahead of this team is big, perhaps even moreso than the one it faced last year. Being great when that’s exactly what’s expected of you is one of the toughest tests in sports. So the Hoosiers have changed their approach, and by extension, themselves.
Does the march to Atlanta begin with a little bit of long toss at Cook Hall? Impossible to know, but it’s certainly a good place to start.