IU’s hope: Creek again rises
As he drove to the airport following his team’s road victory over Indiana in February, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo phoned Hoosiers coach Tom Crean.
“If Maurice Creek was healthy,” Izzo told Crean, “you’d have at least seven more wins.”
Such was the theme last season at Indiana, where most of the talk was about what the Hoosiers could’ve been instead of what they were – a 10-21 team that never found its way after losing Creek, their leading scorer, after just 12 games.
Creek was averaging 16.4 points when he fractured his left knee during a non-conference game against Bryant on Dec. 28. Two weeks earlier he had scored 31 points against SEC champion Kentucky, and he had 29 in victory over Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden.
Gaudy numbers – especially for a freshman.
“Everything was going so well,” said Creek, a 6-foot-5 guard. “I remember lying in that hospital bed [after the injury] thinking, ‘Why me? Why now?’”
Nine months later, Creek is ready to make up for missed opportunities. He said he’s been participating in pickup games with the Hoosiers since July and is almost back to 100 percent.
“Everyone I talked to said this might be a good thing,” Creek said. “They said God always has [a plan] for you, and he might’ve steered me this way just to see if I could take it and come back stronger.”
For Creek, the road to rehabilitation was a grueling one that involved early morning wake-up calls, painful leg exercises and multiple trips to the training room each day. Creek’s knee is strong again, but he’s still building back up the quadriceps muscles he had to neglect for months after his injury.
The good thing is that Creek was able to continue his upper body workouts. Crean said fans will see a much stronger and wider Creek when the Hoosiers kick off the 2010-11 campaign.
“He’s been through as intense of a rehabilitation process as I’ve ever seen,” Crean said. “Í want things to go so well for him because of the type of person he is and because of the kind of effort he’s put into this.”
Taxing as the last nine months have been on Creek physically, he said the injury caused an even greater strain on him emotionally. He said it was tough to watch his teammates struggle without him on the court.
Indiana was 6-6 with Creek, and four of those losses were by five points or less. Without him they were 4-15. All but three of those defeats were by double digits.
“We weren’t a mature enough team to handle the adversity we had,” Crean said, and it certainly wasn’t his fault. Indiana, after all, is in the infant stages of a massive rebuilding project.
With a roster full of freshmen and sophomores, the Hoosiers lacked the junior and senior leaders who are so imperative in pulling a team through tough times. They also didn’t have anyone to make up for Creek’s production.
“I have no doubt that he would’ve emerged as one of the top freshmen in the country,” Crean said. “Not just one of the top scoring freshmen, but one of the top overall freshmen. That certainly would’ve made our whole team better – especially guys in his class.”
Indeed, freshmen such as Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston felt the brunt of Creek’s injury because, with Creek out of the lineup, opponents were able to focus more of their attention on other players. Adjusting to the college game is tough for any freshman. Getting double-teamed – which often happened to Watford down low – makes it even more difficult to adapt.
Watford shot just 37.5 percent from the field last season and only 36.3 percent during Big Ten play. Crean said all but one Hoosier saw their field goal percentage fall after the injury to Creek, who was also the Hoosiers’ top long-range threat.
Mix in a season-ending foot injury to guard Matt Roth after just two games, and the Hoosiers were powerless from beyond the arc. Roth made nine 3-pointers against Ohio State in 2009.
“The best teams in this league have five guys that can shoot the basketball – not just score it, but shoot it,” Crean said. “We weren’t able to do that at all.”
That won’t be the case this season.
Adding Creek and Roth back into the rotation will give the Hoosiers a whole new look to go along with standouts such as Watford and Verdell Jones, who emerged as Indiana’s top player in Creek’s absence.
Crean is also excited about freshmen Will Sheehey, Victor Oladipo and Guy-Marc Michel, a 7-footer from Northern Idaho Community College.
“A lot of people are sleeping on us this year,” Creek said. “Everyone is talking about our record from the last two years, but we’re going to be so much different.”
Assuming, of course, that Creek can regain the form that led to his high level of production in the first 12 games of last season.
Crean said Creek is fine when it comes to scoring and making a play when the offense breaks down. He said he wants his new focus to be on decision-making and playing within the system.
“He’ll be fine,” Crean said. “He’s worked so hard. This has been tough for him. For nine months he’s been working with no finish line. A game is 40 minutes, so you know what you’re playing for when you’re playing. But there’s been no finish line on this.
“He’s been moody and cranky at times, but we helped him through it. That’s all part of it. We wouldn’t want him to be happy. We want a kid that’s committed and driven.
“That’s what he’s grown into.”