BLOOMINGTON — They came, as they always do, from all over the state, to see 16 college-age basketball players. They found a recovering record-setter, a 95-percent star and a 7-foot-1 giant born closer to Brazil than to Bloomington.
Hoosier Hysteria — we’re going to refrain from calling it Midnight Madness, because as I type the first words in this column it is 11:15 — is so often defined by optimism and hope.
For Matt Roth, Guy-Marc Michel and Maurice Creek, Friday offered one combined stage to prove three individual things.
Much of the focus of IU basketball fans Friday, at least based on the enthusiasm behind the applause he got from the crowd, was on Creek, and his left knee. Creek’s rehabilitation has been a popular topic in the offseason, and coming into this night’s festivities, all appeared on schedule. Tom Crean said afterward that’s where Indiana left it, as well.
“You don’t just pick up from where you left off. He’s still going through a very strenuous rehab,” Crean said afterward. “I just don’t want to rush it too quick for him.”
Creek came down the stairs of the south bleachers, through the students’ section, apparently favoring that left knee, if only slightly. During warm-ups and layup drills, while his teammates spun and moved nimbly with the ball, Creek often chose to shoot spot-up jumpers.
He did not participate in the scrimmage at the end of the night.
“Me coming back from a tough injury is perfect right now. I’m walking, shooting and working out in the gym,” Creek said, describing himself as “about 95 percent.”
“It’s gonna take some time to get to 100, but I feel real good about myself.”
Both coach and player were confident that Creek will be good to go once the season begins in just less than a month.
While Creek worked quietly, Matt Roth was trying to prove himself all over again. The best 3-point shooter in Illinois history came into last season hoping to show off improved athleticism and defense. Instead, he was saddled with a season-ending injury after just two games, and Friday night might have felt like something of a forgotten man.
If anyone needed a refresher course, Roth reminded them quickly what he can do with the ball in his hands, winning the 3-point shooting contest over Creek, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. But Roth also looked, in brief opportunities, like the defensive player he hoped he would be last year, making a pair of nice plays in the scrimmage.
“I really just had to take a negative situation in my life and get some positives out of it,” Roth told reporters of last season.
Where Creek had injury, and Roth lost time, Michel was simply fighting suspicion. Relatively unknown prior to arriving this summer from Northern Idaho Junior College, Michel’s length inside was a welcome addition to a team that has lacked a true center in Tom Crean’s first two years.
But the 7-foot-1 post from Martinique, he of the 7-foot-8 wingspan, was still fighting perception, after two long, athletic centers came and went without much more than a passing impact on the program. Tijan Jobe and Bawa Muniru were beloved by fans, and by all accounts, they worked hard. But in the statistical columns that mattered, they offered little.
And so, presented with another foreign center without a deep history in the game — Michel only began playing basketball at 16 — IU fans had a right to their skepticism. Some of what they saw Friday night ought to have eased their minds.
Michel wasn’t a world-beater, not that anyone expected that of him. But he looked comfortable and fluid in the post, something never really achieved by either Muniru or Jobe. He showed impressive control for a player his size, and an attractive hook shot that, if it can be employed regularly, would be awfully hard to stop.
“He really, really wants to be good,” Crean said of Michel. “He’s got the good feel, he’s got the jump hook, and we want to continue to develop that. We’ve got to get him tighter in every area of his game.”
Throughout the course of any college basketball offseason, questions build up about personnel, about rotations, about storylines and strengths and weaknesses. Some of those questions have begun to meet answers. It’s basketball season again.