For the first time since March 28, 2013, two former Indiana Mr. Basketball winners walked out to midcourt as starters for the IU basketball program.
When Jordan Hulls and Cody Zeller did it more than eight years ago, it was widely expected. They had started all year for IU’s last team to achieve a No. 1 ranking. It was a team that cemented Indiana sophomore guard Anthony Leal as a crazed Hoosier fan.
But very few knew that Leal would be joining Trayce Jackson-Davis in the starting lineup on Wednesday night against Northern Kentucky.
Leal found out a couple days ago and managed to keep it a secret, but even he was having trouble believing the news.
“Obviously when they first told me, I was in shock, but I just tried to focus on making the most of it and following the scout and making sure that we got off to a good start, that kind of stuff,” Leal said on Wednesday night after Indiana defeated the Norse. “(I was) staying true to what I do and trusting myself.”
For anyone from Indiana, starting for IU carries special significance. But for Leal, a Bloomington native and lifelong IU fan, this was the realization of dreams.
“Very special. I couldn’t really stop smiling,” he said.
He knew the moment would be special for his parents as well, long-time IU season-ticket holders who raised their kids to root for the program. So upon learning the news, Leal went on a covert mission to see to it that as much of his family as possible could experience the surreal moment while keeping his parents in the dark.
“I didn’t tell my parents because I wanted it to be a surprise for them,” Leal said. “I had my sister make sure my grandparents and everybody was here to make sure they could experience it with me.”
Leal started because normal starter Parker Stewart was taken out of the lineup. And with Trey Galloway still recovering from wrist surgery, the opening was there.
Leal, a 6-foot-5 Bloomington South High School product had already been earning more minutes as this season progressed, and he proved his value on Wednesday with career highs in both assists (5) and rebounds (4).
“It was special and hopefully the first of many,” Leal said.
But will it be the first of many this year?
WHY WAS STEWART ON THE BENCH?
While Leal brings some things to the table that he arguably does better than Stewart like passing and defense , let’s be clear — you just don’t suddenly bench a 49 percent reasonably high-volume 3-point shooter without cause.
And that something happened early in the week. Stewart was coming off a three 3-pointer game on Saturday against Notre Dame, but by Monday Leal had been told he would be starting.
As for what happened, only unsubstantiated rumors are swirling.
IU put the situation in the catch-all basket of “coach’s decision,” and head coach Mike Woodson made it clear after the game he wouldn’t expand on the details.
“I’m not addressing that,” Woodson said. “That’s an in-house matter. I would never address things that go on in my locker room to the fans or the media. That will never happen.”
Was it a one-off situation? Most likely.
And Stewart came off the bench in the second half and did what he does within minutes — knocked-down a three-pointer. That was likely the end of the story.
But to be sure we’ll have to wait a week to see who is in the starting lineup when IU takes on UNC Asheville next Wednesday.
Even Leal’s parent might know this time.
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