Hoosier Hysteria, 7 p.m. Saturday, Assembly Hall. Autograph session 5-6 p.m.
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BLOOMINGTON –- Peter Jurkin is not the next Mike Trout or Albert Pujols or even Coco Crisp. Let's get that out right now.
Jurkin will do a lot of things for Indiana athletics in the next few years, perhaps even during Saturday's Hoosier Hysteria event at Assembly Hall, but excelling at baseball is not one of them.
Jurkin is a 7-foot, 230-pound freshman center from South Sudan via United Faith Christian Academy in North Carolina and the Bloomington-based A-HOPE, a nonprofit organization that helps African student-athletes find opportunities in the United States.
Baseball was not part of his youthful lifestyle.
It was this fall. Why? Because veteran forward Derek Elston saw it as a way to solve Jurkin's biggest problem:
Catching a basketball.
Jurkin was assigned to Elston as part of coach Tom Crean's quasi-mentoring program to help speed freshman adjustment to college life. Elston didn't go through the motions. Like all the Hoosiers, he saw the big picture. A shot-blocking defensive intimidator as All-America Cody Zeller's backup would be a big help.
“In the beginning,” Elston says, “Peter didn't have the best hands. He had trouble catching the ball, and when he did catch it, whether it was because of sweat or being worried about finishing or just trying to impress people, he'd lose the ball.”
For a basketball player, especially one on a team with national title aspirations, that was bad.
So Elston borrowed some balls and gloves from teammate Jordan Hulls, took Jurkin to Cook Hall and played catch with him.
“I've never played baseball in my life,” Jurkin says. “We'd come at night to throw and catch. It was good.”
Good, it seems, took time.
“Peter wasn't the best at pitch and catch,” Elston says. “After the first couple of times, he just went with the flow. He had fun with it. I don't think he realized I was trying to help him with his hands. It's turned him into a great player so far.”
Elston's help has gone beyond basketball.
“He texts me every day and asks what I'm doing,” Jurkin says. “He wants me to stay in touch.”
Jurkin is the biggest member of IU's highly touted freshman class. The others are point guard Yogi Ferrell, small forward Jeremy Hollowell and power forward Hanner Perea.
Every freshman was assigned a couple of veterans. Ferrell got Jordan Hulls and Cody Zeller. Hollowell got Christian Watford, Will Sheehey and Remy Abell. Perea got Watford and Austin Etherington
“We're trying to get them up to speed to where we are,” Elston says.
Adds Hulls: “It's going to be huge because they'll have something to gauge off for the future. How practices are run. How you prepare for practices. What you're supposed to eat. How you dress. They're just learning. It's the little things that will help them in the future.”
This is the first time since Crean arrived in Bloomington in the spring of 2008 that he's had such a blend of talented veterans and newcomers. He wanted to maximize the freshmen's early impact because he didn't sign them so they could spend two years developing.
Ferrell says he's already better because of it.
“(The veterans) told me to stay on top of everything, from academics to basketball,” Ferrell says. “They told me the coaches will push me, push all of us, to see how tough we were, so we had to fight through that. I feel like we're doing that.”
IU is ranked preseason No. 1 in the USA Today coaches' poll. It's the first top ranking for the Hoosiers since 1993 and only the third time in school history they've been a preseason No. 1. The other times were in 1975 (IU went on to win the national title) and 1979 (it lost to Purdue in a NCAA tourney second-round game).
“It was something I planned on doing since the spring,” Crean says of the mentoring. “It was a matter of when to bring it in. I wanted to wait until we needed a jolt to put it together. It wasn't like, let's do this in the beginning and all get to know each other. I wanted to find that moment when it was really important to put together. The players have done an excellent job with that.”
Take, for instance, Watford's approach with Hollowell. Both are of similar size (6-8, 217 for Hollowell; 6-9, 232 for Watford) with similar skills.
“I wanted to get him better,” Watford says. “(During workouts), I tried to go at him only to get him better. I talked to him, showed him and let him know how it is.
“He's kind of long, just like me. He can shoot. We're both kind of laid back. I can see the resemblance.”
Besides the mentoring program, the freshmen also worked with the coaches over the summer thanks to a new NCAA rule. Crean calls that summer work invaluable. Watford says he can already see the benefits.
“It's been good for them. They've gotten a lot better in a lot of ways. They don't make excuses and we don't take excuses from them. It's only making us better, for those guys coming in and competing.”
Or, as Ferrell says, “We have one goal in mind, and that's a national championship.”