BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana's Maurice Creek is very much back.
Is he dominant?
Is he a starter?
Does it matter?
Not even close.
On Thursday night, Creek played in a game for the first time in 21 months and delivered flashes of what once was. The junior guard hit his first four shots, including a pair of three-pointers, and finished with a team-leading 12 points as the No. 1 Hoosiers rolled to an 86-57 exhibition victory over Indiana Wesleyan.
“It felt great,” he said. “I thank the Man Upstairs for giving me the strength to play with these guys. I thank these guys every day for helping me get through the rehab and the tough times; to rebuild to get back to this point.”
There was no sign of the torn Achilles tendon that sidelined Creek for all of last season, or of the pair of knee surgeries that cost him much of the two previous seasons. He was 4-for-6 from the field, 2-for-4 from three-point range. He added a rebound and a block in 15 minutes.
“We don't take it for granted about how special it is that he's back out there,” coach Tom Crean said. “It's been a long road. You can see that he can really help this team.”
That road included plenty of times when Creek wondered if he would make it back, and the coaches wondered it if was best that he didn't.
“He's done it with a lot of help with people pushing him,” Crean said “He's done it three times. He has an amazing mindset. He's had a lot of hard days. Some tough one-on-one sessions back when my language wasn't so good.
“It was tough to get him over the hump. He's not all the way there yet. There's the mental aspect -- is this worth it, could it happen again. He's quiet, but that's a tough young man.”
Toughness has its limits, which is why Crean said he'll monitor Creek's practice time to ensure he doesn't wear down. He wants Creek to continue strengthening his legs so he has the burst to drive and power up into his shot.
“It will be a long year and we want him strong for the whole year,” Crean said.
Creek entered the game early in the first half to a standing ovation and an Assembly Hall crowd chanting his name.
“It was great,” he said. “That was big time."
Then Creek produced, and if it remains uncertain if he'll ever regain the form that enabled him to be the nation's leading freshman scorer, that's not the point.
He's back and contributing on a potential national championship team.
“I'm glad I'm in the game again. It's something I always wanted. To sit for a year, it hurt.
“I try not to think about (the injuries). I think if you do, that's when you get hurt again. Just enjoy the opportunity.”
Thursday's opportunity had four other Hoosiers score in double figures. Christian Watford, Cody Zeller and Will Sheehey had 11 points each. Victory Oladipo had 10 points along with a game-high seven rebounds.
Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell started and finished with eight points, four rebounds, four assists and four turnovers in 22 minutes.
IU's No. 1 ranking didn't faze Indiana Wesleyan, ranked No. 4 in NAIA Division II. It scored the game's first basket in three seconds and bolted to a 13-4 lead. The Wildcats attacked the basket, hit three-pointers, defended with purpose, and played with poise.
The Hoosiers cranked up the defense to get close, but didn't get their first lead until Creek's three-pointer put them ahead 27-25 with seven minutes left in the half.
That was part of a 19-8 surge that produced a 41-30 halftime lead.
The starters were in and out in the second half as Crean gave everyone healthy a chance. Senior forward Derek Elston didn't play because of his recent knee surgery. Freshman forward Hanner Perea was out with a foot injury.
At one point Crean had three freshmen -- Ferrell, Peter Jurkin and Jeremy Hollowell -- plus Creek and sophomore Austin Etherington on the floor.
Still, the Hoosiers rolled. They open the season for real Nov. 9 against Bryant.
“Indiana was as impressive on the court as they were on film,” Wesleyan coach Greg Tonagel said. “This is the best offense in the country. They have the best player (Zeller) in the country.
“What impresses me the most is how well they share the ball. They have many stars, and yet all they want to do is pass. That's impressive.”