Indiana fans are starting to feel the optimism. They have good reason. Freshman forward Cody Zeller is on campus, and the Hoosiers have more talent in Bloomington than at any point since Kelvin Sampson cratered the program with scandal and the defections that followed. And in 2012, there's more talent on the way.
A small sliver of Hoosiers fans' 2011 hopes rest with the return of guard Maurice Creek. Creek shined in his first few weeks as a freshman; he scored 31 points on the John Wall-led Kentucky Wildcats and was averaging around 16 points per game when he suffered a season-ending knee injury that inspired one of the best (and most gruesome) reaction photos these eyes have ever seen. Creek returned as a sophomore, but his season was cut short by another knee injury.
In other words, Creek has displayed talent, but injuries threaten to derail his career. Can he return in time to fill a backcourt role for a revamped Indiana offense? The answer, as of right now, seems to be a tentative "no." Tom Crean told Yahoo!'s Jason King that Creek is still recuperating from last season's injury and that he's still not ready to practice or go full-speed:
Crean: “He’s not 100 percent. He’s not ready to practice. He’s done some one-on-one in limited settings but it hasn’t been with his teammates, unless he’s sneaking in here late at night and doing that along with his shooting drills, which I don’t think he is. He’s smarter than that. We’re not in a rush with him. His rehabilitation has been fantastic. He’s getting stronger. Right now he’s doing things in controlled settings with managers and coaches. We haven’t put him into live action drills yet. There’s not a time period on that just yet. He was evaluated at length again [on Friday]. He’s definitely doing the right things. The mental part was the biggest hurdle for him last year, as far as overcoming that injury. As a coach I’m more concerned with that than the physical aspect, because we’re certainly not going to put him out there and ask him to do things that the doctors and trainers tell him he can’t do.”
That bit about the "mental aspect" may be the biggest hurdle Creek will have to overcome. Sure, the most important thing is actual physical health. But knee injuries have a way of making players tentative. That was obvious at times with Creek last season; the explosive player Indiana fans saw freshman year had turned into one who frequently deferred to teammates, who passively swung the ball rather than penetrating, and who seemed hesitant to attack the rim or initiate contact.
If Creek is 100 percent healthy, Indiana looks like a much improved team. With Zeller in the fold, that will still be the case; we still like Indiana as one of our 2011-12 sleepers. But even if Indiana can weather the blow, it would be a shame to see Creek lose yet another season -- his third in an Indiana uniform -- to that unique type of post-knee injury malaise. No player deserves that.