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  • (Courtesy photo given to Journal Gazette from IU Athletics.) Mbball vs Notre Dame at Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis, 12/18/15_Mike Dickbernd

  • IU Athletics Thomas Bryant didn’t even consider leaving IU for the NBA because he “needed to get better.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2016 10:15 pm

Bryant back as a force for Hoosiers

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON – Grab the money. Buy a car. Buy a house. Drop the schoolwork.

Indiana center Thomas Bryant knew those words were written, or spoken aloud. Such is college basketball’s one-and-done culture.

Jump to the NBA.

Except the culture and its vast pull didn’t know Bryant.

Like how he’s a bright young man with perspective, noting the NBA is a major step up in competition. Like how he’s self-aware enough to not want to take that step until he’s completely ready – and how he rates himself "not ready at all."

Welcome inside the mind of possibly the Big Ten’s next dominant big man, embarking on a sophomore season with the Hoosiers many thought would vanish behind his 6-foot-10, 255-pound shadow.

"It doesn’t matter what people think," Bryant said. "I just love the place (IU)."

And so he’s still there, long after outsiders figured he’d be a first-round draft pick in June.

Bryant would have been a first-rounder, of course, if he’d made himself available. Maybe even a lottery pick. But he’s a unique 19-year-old, 18 when he decided to not even declare for the draft on an exploratory basis. All along, he planned to continue under the tutelage of Indiana coach Tom Crean.

"Well, when it comes to running your own race," Crean said, "Thomas is a great example of that, because he had to do what was absolutely going to be best for his long-term career, and he did not make a short-term decision."

He averaged 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, yet down the stretch, when Bryant analyzed how his freshman year was going, he came to one conclusion: He had to reach another level.

"I knew I needed to get better on the offensive and defensive end and just with my body," he said. "Before the season was over, I knew I needed to come back. I had that instilled in my mind."

No shock to Crean, who absolutely loves Bryant, even admires him, and gives a strong quote to that effect.

"He’s a very honest person in what he needs to get better at," Crean said. "He’s one of those rare kids that really, really gets how much better he can get. He’s enjoying himself. He’s a humble person. He’s got a great level of energy and is very young. He just turned 19 two months ago. Bottom line is he’s really got an old soul."

An old soul but a child’s joy for basketball. Bryant wears his emotions on his sleeve. Learning to steady himself mentally is a goal.

"I play the game with so much passion and so much heart," he said. "But also you have to key that energy and channel it into positive energy to help you in the long run.

"Even when things go bad, still have a great mindset, and even when things go great, do not take it too over the top."

Bryant could now obtain what most every college basketball player craves. Yogi Ferrell’s long shadow is gone, leaving Bryant to be viewed as being the face of the program.

Maybe Bryant won’t be the unquestioned star of the show – James Blackmon Jr. is still a good bet to lead the Hoosiers in scoring, and OG Anunoby is a blank slate of potential – but Bryant is unlike any teammate because he can be a force scoring, rebounding and defending.

Blackmon refers to Bryant as an "easy guy to play with" because of that versatility.

As he famously mouthed to fans amid the euphoria of the win over Kentucky, that is indeed why Bryant came to IU. And why he put riches on hold to continue.

"He’s great with his teammates, loves the gym and really, really wants to have a long-term career," Crean said. "And there’s really no reason, when he leaves Indiana, that he shouldn’t have an extremely long career at the next level."