When Indiana opened the Big Ten season at Illinois on New Year's Eve, Austin Etherington wasn't even close to sniffing the rotation. He was an afterthought, a guy whose role was supposed to lie in outside shooting and whose chance of making a sizable impact on the team was smaller than small.
Etherington had torn his meniscus, battled back through his rehab, struggled from the field, and remained on the bench. When the season began, all of the talk centered on Indiana's talented freshman class and its returning point guard. Nowhere were the names of Etherington and walk-on Jeff Howard.
But now, just seven games into the Big Ten season, Etherington and Howard are as important to this Indiana team as any other single part. They aren't just playing, they are playing at critical moments in tight games, and they are producing.
Etherington and Howard, two Indiana natives, are now playing in front of top-50 recruits Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea. They are glue guys on a team that could very well end up on the NCAA Tournament bubble in just over a month.
Why? They know their roles, and they play them well.
"I have to keep the competition really high in practice so that we have another Austin Etherington, that three weeks ago didn't get in the game against Michigan State and now he's playing major minutes," Indiana coach Tom Crean said Sunday. "That you have another Jeff Howard, who didn't really play for three years and now is playing in key moments.
"Our program is always going to be about improvement level. I think it's proven itself with the guys who have left here and moved on, and I think you're seeing it now."
Etherington used his time away from the court last season in the weight room, quickly becoming the strongest guy on a team that included Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. He bulked up, worked on his game, and got himself in better shape to defend at the Big Ten level.
Now, instead of being purely an outside shooter whose minutes come and go as quickly as a hot streak turns cold, Etherington is valuable to the team in other ways. He can defend multiple positions because of his added strength, he can rebound for the same reason, and he knows the offense well enough to pick his spots.
Etherington scored seven of Indiana's first 13 points in the Hoosiers' 56-46 win over Illinois on Sunday. He added two rebounds and a steal in 21 minutes.
Sure, larger numbers exist within the Indiana box score, but Etherington's have become every bit as vital to Indiana's success.
"I know my role is to come in and try to bring as much energy to the game," Etherington said. "I just come in and play my hardest and play with heart."
Howard is much the same. He hasn't had quite the scoring impact as Etherington, who has scored 23 points his his last five games, but he's become a regular rotation player after riding the bench for his first three-plus years as a walk-on.
Howard had a tip-in and scored two points in Sunday's win, but must of his contributions carry you beyond the box score. He's become one of Indiana's more reliable defenders -- he shut down Northwestern's Drew Crawford late in last Saturday's loss -- and he gives Crean another veteran on the floor who knows all of his sets.
It's a little unorthodox and came mostly out of nowhere, but Etherington and Howard are now regular pieces in the Indiana rotation, and they are a big reason why the Hoosiers have played better lately.