COLUMN: Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant changes everything for the Indiana Hoosiers

Thomas Bryant has changed everything at Indiana, and as a result, Indiana could be in for a special season.

We knew Thomas Bryant would change things at Indiana. Adding a McDonald's All-American big man to a team full of guards pretty much guarantees that. Like adding croutons to a salad guarantees that it'll taste better. Or cheese to a hamburger. Or salsa to chips. 

All of those things are pretty good by themselves, but they're incomplete. To be the best, you can't be incomplete.

The Hoosiers (3-0) are a whole lot closer to complete now, and that's because Bryant has changed things at Indiana far more than anybody could have expected. We knew he would impact the Hoosiers from a pure size standpoint, but Bryant has changed far more than just that. 

In the span of only three regular season games, Bryant has become both an instant fan favorite and this team's emotional leader, essentially delivering everything this program was lacking before he arrived. 

On Thursday night, Bryant had 17 points (7-10 FG), 7 rebounds and 4 blocks in Indiana's first relative test of the season, an 86-65 thrashing of Creighton out of the Big East. Bryant made a 3-pointer, dominated on the block, stayed out of foul trouble. He's the consistent rim presence and interior scorer Tom Crean simply couldn't find last season. 

But equally important, if not more so, is the sheer presence Bryant brings to the court. He's as outwardly emotional and energetic as any Indiana player in recent memory, and he's only 18 years old. Been in Bloomington five months. Played three college games.

What you saw on your television, or from your Assembly Hall seat, on Thursday night is unique. Freshmen like Bryant don't come around very often. 

"You could see the dunks, you could see the running, but you knew that he had infectious energy," Crean said. "And then the more that you watch him, you see that he's infectious to his teammates. And in the case of tonight, infectious to the crowd. Because it's for real. He's not running around stomping his feet every day in practice, but he does play hard.

"He's gotta be careful because he's wearing a boot when he's not on the court, so we don't want him stomping too hard."

Indiana needed a big man last year, sure, but it also needed a vocal, emotional leader that had the respect of his teammates. As the off-court incidents piled up, it became clear that vocal leadership didn't come naturally to Yogi Ferrell. Or James Blackmon Jr. Or Troy Williams. Nick Zeisloft has it, but Nick Zeisloft is not Yogi Ferrell. Or Thomas Bryant. 

The vocal part comes naturally for Bryant, and that changes a whole lot in Bloomington. Now that he's here, not only can the other players go back to their natural positions, but they can also live with their natural personalities without worrying about trying to be something they're not. 

"I've always had that passion in me, ever since grade school," Bryant said. "I wasn't the most talented player, so I had to do something to separate myself from others. The passion, the drive and the will to play, that's the difference. I've kept it with me."

It's early, and I always hate making overarching statements that I could regret later. But this feels like a different Indiana basketball team. It feels like a truly dangerous team, a team that could hang 90 points on you, but might not have to anymore to win.

The Hoosiers had most of the pieces last year, and those pieces are a year older now. But they were incomplete. Bryant completes them. He's the missing piece. The cheese to the hamburger, if you will.

"I'm kind of a laid back guy, but when I see him like that, that makes me want to bring more energy to the game," said Blackmon Jr. "We feed off that. Thomas brings it at a whole different level."

When Bryant sensed a lull from the crowd during Thursday's second half, he sprinted down the court, turned to face the student section, then threw his arms up in the air repeatedly. Seconds later, Assembly Hall whipped into a frenzy, and the Hoosiers made sure Creighton didn't make any sort of a run at them.

"The lion came out of me," Bryant said with a laugh.

When a Creighton player got into his face later, Bryant walked away from trouble and screemed at the top of his lungs in front of the student section. He didn't get frustrated or angry, as freshmen often do. Instead, he channeled that energy into something positive, something that greatly affected both his teammates and the crowd.

"What I like is he's playing with emotion, it's not emotional," Crean said. "If it was emotional, he wouldn't be able to make those plays that he's making.

"It's a lot easier in life to turn somebody down than it is to turn them up. If it gets to that, we'll worry about that later. ... He's fine. He's having a lot of fun out there."

This is a far different team when Bryant is off the floor. The defense isn't as good, the energy and talking drops more often, and the ball doesn't go through the post as much. It's for that reason that it is so incredibly important that Bryant avoid foul trouble whenever possible. That's difficult for freshmen big men, especially when the Big Ten season arrives. But Bryant has to. He's that important to this team and its bottom line.

Indiana is still fairly thin on the front line, meaning Bryant has significant weight on his broad shoulders. To this point, though, I've seen nothing to indicate he can't handle it.

Bryant has changed everything for the Hoosiers, and it could be a special season as a result.


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