CHICAGO -- On Friday, Will Sheehey sat in a corner and relaxed in the serene postgame locker room following Indiana’s 80-64 victory over Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.
At the time, standouts Victor Oladipo (12 points, 11 rebounds and one amazing 360-degree dunk in the second half) and Cody Zeller (24 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals) were in a separate media room.
The peace that Sheehey (11 points, 4-for-4 from the field) had enjoyed disappeared the moment Oladipo entered the room trailed by a horde of reporters. That swarm startled Sheehey, who quickly fled as journalists surrounded the adjacent locker to talk to the national player of the year candidate.
“Let me get out of here,” he said. “I am a little [claustrophobic]. I’m not going to lie.”
It’s a typical situation for Sheehey and the other Hoosiers.
Zeller and Oladipo, a pair of All-America candidates and future lottery picks, have been the subject of substantive national and local stories that have detailed Indiana’s transformation from an NCAA violations-plagued mess to a legitimate title contender in a short span.
But Zeller and Oladipo don’t operate alone. They’re flanked by a crew of capable of veterans who warrant a respectable share of credit for Indiana’s rise. The squad’s effort against Illinois proved as much.
Senior Jordan Hulls recorded seven assists and three steals. Christian Watford, another senior, finished with 15 points, six rebounds and a block. A few minutes after Illinois had cut Indiana’s lead to eight points in the second half, Watford connected on a 3-pointer that extended the Hoosiers' advantage to 13 points with 5 minutes, 31 seconds to play.
Sheehey scored on back-to-back buckets that gave Indiana a 10-2 lead in the first half and put the Illini into an early hole that they couldn’t escape. He dove for multiple loose balls, and he guarded Illinois' guards and forwards.
“I think we have a team like we have had that's answered the bell all year long, responded from tough games,” said Tom Crean. “And sitting where we're sitting, the team has been the headline-maker. Because these guys are so unselfish and they're so selfless with one another and the way that they work, the way that they share the credit, the way that they play offensively and defensively.”
The blending of new and old can fail because the egos of young men are fragile. Chemistry problems can ruin a team that was in Indiana’s preseason position, regardless of talent, if players refuse to accept their roles.
The Hoosiers were faced with that predicament when Yogi Ferrell (12 points) and one of the nation’s top recruiting classes reached Bloomington last summer. Crean returned the bulk of a squad that had won an NCAA tournament game in the 2011-12 season. But it was obvious that his youngsters would contribute in 2012-13, too.
That’s what players wondered as they attempted to sort things out in tense pickup games.
Hulls could see that Oladipo had made tremendous improvements in one offseason and would demand a bigger role this season.
“In pickup games, nobody could stop him. We saw how hard he was working in the gym, and it was really paying off,” Hulls said. “We were really excited, but we were mad we couldn’t stop him in the open gym. But we were excited for the team.”
Watford recognized that the influx of talent could affect his final season with the program.
“It’s definitely a growing process,” he said. “My role has changed. It’s changed, but it really hasn’t changed. I’m still doing the same things: rebounding and scoring the basketball. But we’ve just got a lot of guys. And you’ve just got to accept that.”
Ferrell and his freshman peers tried to display their toughness in those offseason matchups.
“I remember me and Will almost got into a fight,” he said. “Me and Will squared up. I was like ‘Throw, throw a fist.’ We didn’t end up fighting. But I definitely remember that, almost fighting Will. … We just wanted to play our role, I’d say. We felt like if we did that we’d just help the team win.”
With all of the changes, Indiana’s season could have been disrupted by infighting and a lack of chemistry. But the squad’s veterans wouldn’t allow it.
Their selflessness enhanced the ties between one of America’s best teams. And that’s why the Hoosiers operated so seamlessly Friday afternoon, months after fisticuffs nearly ensued in a team pickup game.
Oladipo and Zeller will make millions soon if they decide to go pro. They’re significant components in Indiana’s success and potential.
But Hulls, Sheehey and Watford deserve praise for the impressive mesh that the Hoosiers showcased in Chicago -- the one that could fuel a run to Atlanta in a few weeks.
Without them, this thing may have fallen apart last summer.
“They're huge,” Oladipo said. “It takes our whole team to win. When guys off the bench step up and when Christian and Jordan step up, it's huge for us. They're very capable of that. Without them, we can't win.”