PHILADELPHIA -- At every break, the four Indiana players going through the preseason workout would head to the side of the court for a drink. Naturally, a cup of water or Gatorade was there at the ready, served on a handy little tray or passed out by hand.
That's not an unusual occurrence, of course, though the water boy in this case happened to be 6-foot-10 and the 20th-ranked player in this season’s freshman class.
When Hoosiers coach Tom Crean first recruited Thomas Bryant to Indiana, he was impressed with the big man’s skill, size and athleticism. In the past season he has coached him, Crean said Bryant's personality has trumped even his ability.
“Never seen anybody do that, ever," Crean said. “Not the manager; him, pouring the water and putting in the little stack or walking it over to the guys. We already had him. He didn’t have to impress us. It’s just who he is."
Just who is Bryant? That’s a lesson a lot of people are learning this month. As the Hoosiers have wound their way through a roller-coaster season and back to their first Sweet 16 since 2012, plenty of people have learned about the steadying hand of Yogi Ferrell and the mercurial talent of Troy Williams.
Until last weekend, though, Bryant had been a bit more of a mystery. Though Wildly talented -- he averages 11.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game -- Bryant still wasn’t mentioned among the elite frontcourt players in the nation.
One game against Kentucky changed the tenor of the conversation. Limited early with foul trouble, Bryant scored 19 points, including 15 in the final 7 minutes, 32 seconds. Marcus Lee and Skal Labissiere, the top-ranked big man and recruit in Bryant’s class, couldn’t come close to matching or stopping him. They had 18 points.
Now a Sweet 16 date Friday against North Carolina -- against Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks -- could change the narrative for Bryant altogether. Negating the Heels' big men that come at you like a hockey line change might be a tall order, but if Bryant can hold his own the way he did against Kentucky, it could tilt things in Indiana’s favor.
The freshman knows that, and knows a lot of eyes will be on him (at least those diverted from the Ferrell/Marcus Paige battle), but don’t let his public service to his teammates, nor general kind demeanor, fool you.
As Bryant was headed back to the locker room following his news conferences Thursday, I asked him if he was looking forward to the game against the Tar Heels. His eyes got as big as he grinned. He’s a man of few words, but these words clearly had real meaning to him.
“Oh yeah, of course," he said. “This is fun. This is fun. This is what you come to college basketball for."