At least A.J. Ratliff gave IU Coach Kelvin Sampson something to be happy about over the weekend.
While the 24th-ranked Hoosiers were busy disposing of any momentum they'd built by losing in Iowa City, Ratliff's performance gave Sampson a reason to smile. The junior guard came off the bench to score 15 points, including 13 in the first half, while pulling down a team-best five rebounds in Indiana's 81-75 loss to the Hawkeyes.
Rebounding was a sore spot with Sampson after his team was out-worked and out-hustled on the boards all afternoon at Carver Hawkeye Arena, but Ratliff was probably the one player he couldn't point a finger at.
"He was our leading rebounder, and I think that says a lot about A.J.," Sampson said Monday. "It doesn't say a lot about our other guys…but certainly it does say a lot about A.J. I'm really proud of him. I'm really happy for him as well."
Entering the season, no player on the IU roster had been more of an enigma than the former Indiana Mr. Basketball from Indianapolis' North Central H.S. The 6-2 guard battled injuries and inconsistency during his first two seasons under Mike Davis, and as his playing time dipped his confidence dropped as well.
Enter Kelvin Sampson. While Sampson's arrival has coincided with Ratliff's re-birth, it was far from a foregone conclusion that this player-coach relationship would be a perfect fit. After all, Sampson has long been known as a disciplinarian who demands toughness out of his players, and Ratliff's first two seasons in Bloomington didn't reveal a great deal of that, either physically or mentally.
But it's worked. Ratliff is averaging 9.9 points per game, including 12.1 during Big Ten contests. After shooting just 32 percent from the floor and 31.7 percent from behind the 3-point arc a year ago, he's shooting 48.3 percent overall this season, including 41.4 percent from 3-point range.
Perhaps the most remarkable stat is Ratliff is shooting a Big Ten-best 57.1 percent from 3-point range after re-injuring his left wrist late in the non-conference season. Despite playing with a cast and being limited in what he can do with his left hand, he's been a key to the Hoosiers' 6-3 start to the Big Ten slate.
"He's basically playing with just one hand," Sampson said. "His left hand, he just can't use as aggressively as he'd like."
That injury keeps him from doing much going to his left, and Sampson said he's also favoring it on the defensive end when he's trying to fight through screens. But Sampson applauds the sort of grit and determination that Ratliff has shown despite the injury.
"The things we've been emphasizing since day one have kind of sunk in with him," Sampson said. "He doesn't play with any fear. He almost plays with a reckless abandonment."
There very well could come a time Ratliff will need to have surgery on the wrist. It's the same injury Ohio State freshman Greg Oden had, and Oden opted to have surgery that kept him on the sidelines for the first month of the season. But Sampson said doctors have re-assured him and Ratliff he can't do any further damage to the wrist, and so long as the junior can handle the pain, he's cleared to be on the floor.
Ratliff has done just that, and is playing the best basketball of his IU career.
"It just shows you how important attitude is," Sampson said. "A.J. has a no fear attitude. He just goes out and plays."
Injury Can't Rattle Ratliff
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