In a team meeting before Indiana faced New Orleans in late December, Indiana coach Tom Crean asked six or seven of his players to describe sophomore Collin Hartman. Only two players brought up the word “shooting” in their descriptions of the forward, Crean said.
Little did they know that they were describing a player who, at the time, was the fourth-most efficient offensive player in the country, at least until their coach told them.
“Now if I said (the) fourth-highest KenPom offensive efficiency rated guy was in this room, would you pick Collin?” Crean asked them.
No, they wouldn’t have.
Maybe they would’ve picked preseason First Team All-Big Ten point guard Yogi Ferrell, Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate James Blackmon Jr. or even sharpshooter Nick Zeisloft, but the 6-foot-7 forward (who has been forced to play center at times for Indiana this season) who tore his ACL nine months ago?
Not a chance.
“And that got their attention,” Crean said. “It’s not about what the criteria of offensive efficiency rating is. This guy impacts the game, and that’s where you want to be.”
Two days after what proved to be Indiana’s season-ending loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament last March, Hartman planted his right leg wrong in a drill in practice and tore his ACL as the Hoosiers were preparing for a tournament bid that never materialized.
“The news is not good in that he has a torn ACL and we are waiting to make sure that’s all,” Crean tweeted at the time. “Collin has been practicing well and getting better. This is a setback for him.”
Somehow, some way, Crean was generally wrong in his assessment.
After missing the team’s five-game exhibition tour in Canada this summer, Hartman was back on the court for Hoosier Hysteria, the team’s fall exhibition slate and every regular season game to date.
“The day that it happened I kept telling myself I’m going to be back for next season,” Hartman said.
He said he always thought rehabilitation could take between six and nine months, so he aimed for the former. And through the entire recovery process, his teammates and coaches told him that he could come back from the injury.
“If I’m in there every day and I’m working, then it’s a very attainable goal,” Hartman said.
While he has been limited in practice up to this point of the season, he has made the most of an unenviable situation.
“He controlled what he could control,” Crean said, “and when we got into the summer and he really couldn’t do anything but stand in one spot and shoot, we made sure we got him in that spot shooting as much as possible.”
After appearing in only 16 games as a freshman and only playing 16 minutes during Big Ten play, Hartman has become an indispensible part of Indiana’s rotation. He began the season as the team’s sixth man, but it’s difficult and probably unfair to put a label on his role because of how much he brings to the table.
Through the first 14 games of the season, Hartman is averaging 4.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 54 percent from the field.
Hartman is one of the most accurate three-point shooters on team and his catch-and-shoot ability makes opposing defenses pay when they sag off of him.
He’s one of the Hoosiers’ most consistent rebounders and he’s among the top 100 players in the country in offensive rebound percentage.
He takes care of the ball and there’s not a loose ball for which he won’t dive on the ground.
“He’s just got this will and this hustle,” Crean said. “He is a model for what it takes to win.”
The Collin Hartman on display this season is completely different from the Collin Hartman of last season.
“The Collin Hartman you’re watching right now post-knee surgery, compared to the Collin Hartman that was playing a year ago,” Crean said, “the only thing that looks the same is their face.”
The forward’s body and mentality has changed since his injury and subsequent surgery, Crean said. And despite tearing his ACL in the beginning of the offseason, Hartman moves naturally on the court and he doesn’t show any lingering signs of the injury other than the remnant knee brace on his right leg.
“I mean, we’re talking about a guy that really shouldn’t be playing at the athletic level that he’s playing (at) because he’s coming off this knee surgery,” Crean said.
Hartman’s leaps and bounds of improvement are rooted in not being able to play the game that he loves while he recovered from tearing his ACL. He hadn’t fully appreciated what he had as a basketball player until it was taken away from him.
As painful as the process was for the sophomore, it sparked a new and improved mindset for him.
“I’d never really not had basketball,” Hartman said. “Just not being on the court, not being able to work with the guys and do everything everybody else does. It kind of just gave me a new hunger almost to just get out there and just be aggressive, be able to help the team.”
For junior point guard Yogi Ferrell, who has played with and against Hartman since high school, it’s not a surprise to see his teammate make major contributions off the bench this season.
Ferrell said Hartman has been shooting with Indiana assistant coach Tim Buckley before practice almost every day.
“We call him the shot doctor, Coach Bucks,” Ferrell said. “So the shot doctor will get your shot right, that’s for sure.”
Indiana’s point guard said more shots for Hartman will lead to more confidence, and more confidence will lead to more contributions on the court.
“I feel like Collin can be one of those guys that can come in and make a couple threes for us,” he said. “He’s kind of looking like his old self a little bit when he played at Cathedral (High School).”
Crean said Hartman is playing with tenacity and he’s talking more than ever before. It’s a product of being in the Indiana program for a year and wanting to play more, according to his coach.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Crean said in regards to Hartman’s playing time last season. “(I) wish I had (played him more).”
Indiana’s seventh-year head coach said if he could redo last season, he would have played Hartman over one or two other players.
But a year ago, he wasn’t the player that he is now. He hadn’t earned his spot in the Hoosiers’ rotation yet.
“Well, he’s earned it after being a guy that’s had to go through this hard, tough process to get himself back,” Crean said.
Hartman may not be the tallest, fastest or most talented player on the court, but he has dedicated himself to moving without the ball and out-hustling opponents. But at the same time, he is more than a burst of energy off the bench.
Crean is quick to point out that the former three-star recruit has his share of skill as a basketball player.
“He’s not just some guy that’s blue-collar that’s running around, can’t make plays,” Crean said. “He can make a lot of plays but he’s improving constantly.”
The 6-foot-7 sophomore is becoming what Crean and his staff recruited several years ago — a basketball player. Hartman plays numerous positions for Indiana off the bench and he does a little bit of everything, from crashing the boards to hitting open three-pointers to making unselfish passes to open teammates.
“Collin is one of those guys that could do whatever we need him to do right now defensively,” Crean said. “(He) is playing with another offensive confidence with or without the ball that he can do a lot of things within the offense.”
But Hartman’s greatest strength might be his awareness and acceptance of his role. Indiana has stars and potential NBA players in Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams, but it’s role players and glue guys like Hartman who complete the team.
“I’ve talked about how much better he’s gotten and how hard he worked in his rehab,” Crean said, “but he just goes out there and does what it takes to win the game.”