Indiana coach Tom Crean took the podium today at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, Illinois at the Big Ten’s annual media day. Full video of his press conference is available below and a transcript is available after the jump.
THE MODERATOR: Next up is Indiana head coach, Tom Crean. He enters his fifth season and returns all five starters from last year’s team that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, including Big 10 preseason player of the year Cody Zeller. Coach?
TOM CREAN: Well, I would like to thank the Big Ten, first of all, for continuing to have what is an incredibly first class event, and for all the people that participated in that, thanks to all of you. Thanks for coming and covering this league.
I don’t think any of us take it for granted; I know I don’t. When you coach in a league like this and you coach against the teams and coaches that we go against and you know it is a big deal every time out, to have this kind of attendance is a big deal as well. As far as our team right now, there is no question that our whole mindset is, our goal to get to where we want to be as a team, to get the identity that we have to have, is to make sure that we feel like we’re just a little better every day.
It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. The thing I can always look at and back it up with is, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in right now without having that mindset from before. The bottom line is if your team is improving, led by your best players, then everybody else has to fall in line. There is no doubt that the attention the team has gotten has been good, and in the sense of that they have worked very hard to get back in the conversation, it makes for good conversation.
But the daily challenge of trying to improve and trying to deal with all the things that we need to do to be a better basketball team is what’s most important, and that’s where our focus has been. That’s where it’s been as coaches and fortunately that’s where it’s been as a team inside of our practices. It’s our job as coaches to create that environment every day where the challenges are there, dealing with adversity, trying to put them in as many situations as we can to improve them and to take it head on, and it’s up to them to make sure they come in every day with a mental preparation that’s strong, with an energy that’s really good and a mindset to compete.
If we do that, then improvement will be there and that gives us an opportunity to move forward. As far as the league to me, when you look at this league, I don’t think you can do anything, in my mind, but look at the fact that Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State won the championship last year and until somebody unseats them, that’s the way it is. It’s a new season and all that, but those teams didn’t get any worse, they’re probably even a little bit better.
When you have all the great programs in this league, you know that it is absolutely going to be a hard fought, grinded out, in the sense of not grinding the games as much as grinding through what it will be all about and getting your team up to that challenge through your practices and through your nonconference is so important because you don’t know what the league holds other than it’s going to be a battle every night.
To me that’s where our focus is. As far as individual guys, Cody Zeller epitomizes so many things about the program and number one is the humble spirit he has. He’s confident but he has a humbleness, and he has a desire to improve.
Like I said earlier, when your best players lead the way with improvement in your team then you have an opportunity to keep getting better. There is no room for taking a seat in the back or for taking a day off for anybody else in the program when your best players work that way. He continues to improve. He’s got a lot of things that he can get better at, he knows it, we know it and if those improvements continue we can do a lot of things with him.
As far as our three seniors that are with us, Jordan Hulls has been a classic example of what you want your program to be from start to where it is right now. He’s never come in and wavered one day in his work ethic. You can probably count on one hand the number of days he’s taken off out of 365 days a year.
He’s always in the gym, always in Cook Hall or Assembly Hall and he’s a great leader for us. Christian Watford shows what happens when you continue to improve. He went from a 32 percent shooter as a sophomore to 44 percent as a junior and had much of the year where he hovered around the 50 percent mark. 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, which he is fully capable of.
And then you have your best players leading the way. Derek Elston had an injury on Saturday night, during our Hoosier Hysteria. He’s been playing pretty well, his weight was at a great place, his strength was at a great place, and just as happens sometimes, something happened inside that game that nobody can pinpoint. He has some knee issues, we got him an MRI right away and he is going to have surgery tomorrow.
He will be out a period of time and we have a baseline of what we’re looking at that but you can never tell until they get in and do the work and start the rehab process with him. We have a lot of other players and I will open it up.
Q. Coach, a lot of hype surrounding this team, something that your team hasn’t had to deal with so far. How do you prepare your team to stand up to that pressure?
TOM CREAN: Our team has had to deal with a lot of other hype that wasn’t necessarily positive. I think it’s easy to look at the couple of years we started and say, well, Indiana was down and Indiana wasn’t doing this or that and that’s all true. The target of being an Indiana Hoosier has never changed, and Indiana is synonymous throughout the country for being a lot of things in basketball, and it was always a big deal when you were playing Indiana or Indiana was coming to town and that hasn’t changed.
Will it grow some? Maybe. But I think the bottom line is 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 phase them, they continued to work. They might respond here and there but it didn’t phase them.
The work ethic I see from this team is the same thing. There is no question that they’re receiving a lot of attention and we’re trying to keep our business as usual approach as much as we can inside the halls of the building, and you keep the regularity that you have to have and deal with it as it comes. The bottom line is when those guys hit the practice floor or the weight room, or when they go into the film room starting more this weekend, they’re working toward where they want to work, none of that matters.
What matters is, are they challenging each other? Are they competing? Are they absorbing the competition and are they hungry to get better? I don’t see any sign of that not being the case.
Q. Going back to your Marquette days and even now, you’ve coached a lot of great players. Where do you think Cody Zeller ranks in terms of the better players you’ve coached? Do you think there is a lot of pressure on him this season considering the preseason accolades he’s received?
TOM CREAN: I don’t think Cody is somebody who has responded to pressure, I think that’s what makes him as mentally tough as he is at his age. To me that’s never wavered. 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. He’s not like that. I don’t want to compare players when you’re still coaching them. Those are for days when it’s all said and done, but I will go back to what I said when we signed him. His mental toughness is phenomenal, his character is phenomenal, he’s a great teammate, he has a great work ethic, those are the things that stand out. If that improvement continues the way that it has, he will have an outstanding season for us.
Q. I know this is early but how do you see Derek’s injury affecting the dynamic of the front court this year?
TOM CREAN: We have been dealing with other injuries this week, with Hanner Perea out again, and you hate to say it’s part of it, but the disappointment is for him in the sense that he’s been playing at a good level, working hard, improving, and I don’t see this taking away a season or anything like that. Certainly surgery I’m not a doctor so we will find out. I think from everything we have heard from our doctors, it should be good. It happened in high school to him, before he ever got to Indiana, so we will see how it all turns out. I think he’s a senior, he’s been a tremendous leader, without question. He’s been as good as anybody in the program at trying to help younger players. I don’t think that will change even if he’s going through the rehab.
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. He’s been through it, he can make shots, he can get rebounds, he knows what we’re doing, so he will be back. In the meantime people will have to grow into what they are trying to get to and at the same time do more with the veterans.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the strength of basketball in the midwest this year with yourself, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan all coming in toward the top of the ranks.
TOM CREAN: Don’t forget Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois.
Q. And how that can change the landscape of college basketball.
TOM CREAN: I think there is more attention paid to it maybe a little bit nationally, but anytime Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky those are always going to be names that are big everywhere when it comes to college basketball.
The fact that all three are getting the attention that they’re getting now I think brings a little more attention to it, but for somebody like me and others that live in the Midwest maybe a little more appreciation. I know it feels good for us to be back in that conversation, to be back and mentioned in the same breath of other great teams. Not only having a great program, which Indiana has been for decades, but back to having a chance to be successful.
Again, we didn’t mention Cincinnati, we didn’t mention Marquette, Xavier, Butler, Notre Dame, the Midwest is absolutely loaded, and there is a lot of excitement for fans, whether they are at the games, reading it, watching it on television and it makes it that much more competitive for all the coaches and the players going against one another.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, Coach. Best of luck this season.