Heading into last season, Collin Hartman knew what role he would play at Indiana. To get on the court, he'd have to be able to spread the court by knocking down perimeter shots. There were only enough minutes for either him or then-sophomore Austin Etherington, and Hartman would have to beat him out to get minutes.
Etherington ultimately proved to be the more reliable option, and he got the minutes. Hartman was sparingly used, playing just 4.5 minutes per game.
Hartman was recruited as a shooter. Even though he lost the battle as a freshman to Etherington, it seemed more than probable that shooting would again be his calling card this year. And to some extent, it has been.
But Hartman is a man of many roles, and he's been asked to do something this season he never imagined he'd do at Indiana. That is, to play center at 6-foot-6, and do it for more than just small segments in the middle of the game.
"No I did not," Hartman said when asked if he ever envisioned playing center at IU. "But I'm ready to do anything to coaches need, the team needs. I feel as though I'm physically prepared to do what they need me to do."
Even as the Hoosiers headed into the season glaringly thin on the front line, Hartman was rarely mentioned as a guy that could help down low. Hanner Mosquera-Perea's name came up often. As did Devin Davis', Emmitt Holt's and Jeremiah April's. Even Troy Williams saw some time at center during the team's summer trip to Canada. There was not mention of Hartman.
Yet there he was, all 210 pounds of him, manning the middle down the stretch in a narrow win over UNC-Greensboro on Nov. 28. Hartman, who wasn't even expected to be ready for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in March, had already become one of Indiana's most consistent options inside.
"The Collin Hartman you're watching right now post-knee surgery compared to the Collin Hartman that was playing a year ago, the only thing that looks the same is their face," Indiana coach Tom Crean said recently. " The body's changed. The mentality has changed. He's got this will and this hustle. That's what it looks like when you go against it every day. Collin obviously didn't get a lot of minutes last year. He hadn't earned it at that point. He's earned it after being a guy that's had to go through this hard, tough process to get himself back."
Hartman has been on a minutes limit for much of the early season as he continues to recover from the injury, but he's been a positive surprise and an important piece for the Hoosiers through 10 games.
The Indianapolis native is averaging 4.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in only 15.4 minutes, and he's made many hustle plays that didn't end up the box score. Hartman had seven points and seven rebounds -- four on the offensive glass -- in IU's dominant win over Pittsburgh.
Hartman is shooting the ball better after the time off -- he's made 9-of-18 from beyond the arc (50 percent) -- but his success is about much more than that. Despite his lack of size, Hartman has been one of Indiana's best post defenders, and his relentless hustle has often energized the young team when it needs it most.
Hartman is stronger because he spent extra time in the weight room when he couldn't be on the court -- he got up to 218 pounds at one point -- and he worked extensively with assistant coach Tim Buckley to improve his jump shot. During a time of frustration and heartache, Hartman chose to use it as an opportunity to work on his weaknesses and return as a better player.
"He's a smart player, good player, but his body has changed," Crean said. "He's become physically stronger and he had to work extremely hard. There's a test of wills when you're going through the rehabilitation process like that, to come back from a injury like that. When you look at his body, his body has changed completely."
"You don't know what you've got really til it's gone," Hartman said. "I think that played a big part in it, just not having basketball for awhile. I've never really not had basketball. It kind of gave me a new hunger almost to just be out there, be aggressive and be able to help the team."
When Hartman had his ACL surgery back in March, Crean didn't expect him to be ready for the start of the season. A standard recovery could take as long as nine months, so the chances seemed slim.
But Hartman immediately made it his goal to be back by November, at the latest. His mom had had six knee surgeries. She knew his goal was possible.
And so Hartman worked tirelessly toward the end goal. Not to return as a shooter or as a post player or anything else, but just to return in any role that would get him on the court.
"I always thought it was 6-9 months. I just shot for six months," Hartman said. "I could be wrong with that, but they told me it was a completely attainable goal if I stayed with my rehab and did everything to my potential. I don't think I've missed a single treatment."
Hartman is back now, and the Hoosiers are better for it. He's not the complete answer to Indiana's low-post deficiencies, but he can be part of it. Had you asked him or Crean a year ago if that would be a possibility, they may have dismissed the question.
"My upper body is much stronger that it was last year. I came in very, very weak. Since I couldn't physically run, the weight room really helped me get prepared to come back and play these multiple positions I'm being ask to play and guard the multiple positions with my quickness and with my strength down low.
"I have a new appreciation for it. I kind of come in attacking every day instead of just trying to survive the day, which I did a lot last year as a freshman."