Tipoff: Nebraska at Indiana, 7 p.m, tonight
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BLOOMINGTON – Self-promotion isn't Will Sheehey's thing. Well, most of the time. When it comes to competition, who kicks tail and who doesn't, sometimes a guy just has to speak the truth.
Take, for instance, who set the work-and-leadership tone when Sheehey and former Indiana Hoosier – and current Orlando Magic – player Victor Oladipo arrived in Bloomington four years ago.
“I taught Vic everything he knows,” Sheehey says with a trace of a smile.
And when it came to last year's fitness competition between Sheehey and former Hoosier Jordan Hulls, well, don't be confused.
“There was no competition,” Sheehey says with a wisp of a smile.
For the record, he is not joking. Hulls barely broke a generation-old Indiana fitness record. Sheehey destroyed it.
Sheehey is a senior now, a four-year guy who will not dominate IU's career record books, although he is a member of the 1,000-point club. He's fine with that entering tonight's regular-season home finale against Nebraska (17-11). There has always been a bigger agenda.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who played hard,” he says. “A guy who gave it his all every second he was on the court.
“I didn't score as many points or (do) the things other guys in my recruiting class did, but I'd like to think I gave it my all here.”
And one other thing:
“Win games is the biggest accomplishment,” he says.
After consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and last year's Big Ten title, the victories have slowed. Indiana is 17-12 and fighting for NCAA tourney relevance. For most of the season, the 6-foot-7 Sheehey did not play to the All-Big Ten expectations. Still, he averages career highs in scoring (11.1 points) and rebounding (4.1).
“There have been a lot of challenges I wasn't expecting,” he says, “but we've overcome them and are still continuing to work on them.”
Sheehey's performance is finally matching his potential. He just won his first Big Ten Player of the Week award after averaging 18.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals against top-20 teams Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State. He had a career-high 30 points in the Iowa victory. He made 24 of 40 shots from the field in those three games, which is huge given he was a 42 percent shooter before last week.
“What I love about him right now,” coach Tom Crean says, “is that there are no qualms – he knows his voice matters. When he plays that way, when he leads that way, everybody is better. No one can ever look at him and not think he didn't bring his absolute best energy level and fierceness every day.”
Sheehey is scoring, rebounding and defending at a game-changing level. He has the previously reeling Hoosiers, winners of three of four, thinking NCAA Tournament.
“That's what a senior leader does,” guard Yogi Ferrell says. “He steps up to the challenge. He's pretty much carried us. His energy in practice and everything has pretty much carried us in the past few games. His talk before the (Ohio State) game in the huddle was great.”
What changed? The 82-64 loss at Purdue, Crean says. Sheehey took ownership as he hadn't before.
“There is always a watershed moment or a defining moment where you make a decision,” Crean says. “After the Purdue game, he knew that, 'Hey, I can be a lot better on the court when my leadership is where it needs to be every day.' That's exactly what he's done from that point.”
Sheehey is more succinct:
“It was a big part of the season. It could either go worse, or turn it around.”
The turnaround is far from complete. IU needs to win tonight against surging Nebraska (it's won six of seven and eight of 10), win at Big Ten champion Michigan on Saturday and have a strong showing in next week's Big Ten tourney to have a shot at a NCAA tourney at-large bid.
“We're going to need him to step it up,” Ferrell says, “and I think he can do it.”
Why not? Sheehey has the size, athleticism and fitness to create havoc on every possession.
“Will is capable of doing a lot of things,” Crean says. “That's what we want him to continue to understand and do. This is the confidence that he has, that he should have. This is the confidence his teammates have in him as they always have.”
Sheehey credits his teammates.
“Just my guys are finding me. I'm taking good shots. I'm not forcing anything. I'm letting it come to me. I've got everyone on the floor who can find me, so we're really clicking,” he says.
Crean suggests Sheehey is playing better because he finally gets that he's good. As in, All-Big Ten good.
“It's not any deeper than what is is,” Crean says. “He's a really good player. Every once in a while, people forget.
“I don't care if people forget. I care if he forgets. He doesn't need to think he's anything less than a tremendous leader. He doesn't need to overthink it. Just play.
“He's putting all that together. ... When he has that edge and toughness, he brings great joy to the game. That's when he's at his best.”
Win or lose against Nebraska, Sheehey will give a postgame talk to the Hoosiers fans (so will fellow seniors Evan Gordon, Taylor Wayer and Jeff Howard), and he'll have 128 games and countless experiences to reflect on. He hit the game-winning midrange jumper with 12 seconds left to beat VCU in the 2012 NCAA tourney to get IU to the Sweet 16 for the first time in a decade. He was there when Christian Watford made the three-pointer to beat No. 1 Kentucky in December 2011 and show the college basketball world that the Hoosiers were really back. And he was last season's Big Ten sixth man of the year while helping IU win the outright conference title for the first time in 20 years.
“There have been some great memories," Sheehey says. "The year I hit the shot to get us to the Sweet 16 was big for me. The Kentucky game (Watford) hitting that shot was big. The whole experience.”
Sheehey arrived underrated (ranked No. 141 overall) and highly motivated. He joined Oladipo and Hulls in setting a work ethic standard few could match.
“He helped turn the program,” Crean says. “He walked into the doldrums of this place and with Victor and Jordan changed the culture of the program. He has made a big difference in this program from the time he got here. He's playing his best basketball. He is a big part of this team's leadership and how the team is gaining confidence. When he talks and plays with that confidence he's been playing with lately, it's infectious.”