Indiana won the game.
But the more pressing matter was the absence of its leading scorer.
The No. 3 Hoosiers were left to play without James Blackmon Jr. in Sunday’s 85-52 win over Mississippi Valley State at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Blackmon suffered a left knee injury during last week’s loss at Fort Wayne, and a timetable for his return is unclear.
Although he didn’t specify the nature or severity of the injury, IU coach Tom Crean doesn’t believe Blackmon will require surgery. But anytime Blackmon’s name is associated with the words “knee injury,” there is cause for concern.
Blackmon’s left knee is the same one that sustained a torn ACL midway through his high school career. It’s also the knee that required a procedure to fix a meniscus injury in July 2015. Blackmon injured the ACL in his right knee last December.
“He’s been through a lot,” Crean said. “Been through a lot before he even got here. So, we just got to make sure that we’re patient with him and help him get through that part of it. He’ll know his body. He’s certainly got great support here and he’ll get that. We’ll just see how the next few days go.”
One of the biggest games of Indiana’s season, Wednesday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup with No. 4 North Carolina, is on the immediate horizon, and the Hoosiers would be served well by Blackmon’s presence.
Blackmon, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer, dressed and was a full participant in pre-game warmups on Sunday, but did not see the floor during regulation. The Hoosiers learned how to play without him last season, when he missed the final 22 games of the year with his second ACL injury.
Should he be unavailable Wednesday, IU will have to cope once again.
“The game doesn’t change really that much,” Robert Johnson said. “Everybody knows their job out there on the court. And it’s hard to not have James out there, but we have key things that we go to when James isn’t. So, nothing really changes, everybody else just steps up.”
On Sunday, against a Delta Devils program slotted at No. 348 out of the 351 Division I teams included in the KenPom.com rankings, there were plenty of Hoosiers who did.
That included OG Anunoby, who returned from an illness to score a career-high 21 points. It included walk-on Zach McRoberts, who made his first career start at IU in place of Blackmon. McRoberts scored his first points as a Hoosier on a 3-pointer and finished as a plus-28 for the day.
It also included Thomas Bryant, who recorded his fifth career double-double, and his second in as many games, scoring 13 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking three shots.
Bryant’s effort on the glass was part of a strong performance by IU around the rim. Indiana out-rebounded MVSU, 48-26, and pulled down 14 offensive rebounds. The Hoosiers also outscored the Delta Devils, 19-8, in second-chance points.
When teams schedule a game against Mississippi Valley State, they do so intent to play against the pressure that has become a staple of coach Andre Payne’ approach.
That’s what the Hoosiers saw in abundance Sunday. And save for a stretch late in the first half, Indiana rolled.
IU went nearly five minutes without hitting a shot during that rough patch late in the half, watching as Mississippi Valley State scored 12 straight points to get within 33-28.
Anunoby ended the drought with a 3-pointer — one of his three deep shots on the day — and Juwan Morgan sank four free throws in the final 36 seconds of the period to give IU a 40-28 halftime lead.
“What really changed was that we got our energy back,” Bryant said. “The energy died a little bit with us. And we started looking at the pressure that they were giving us and just started to realize what we could really attack it instead of just going out there like chickens with our heads cut off. So we looked at the press, we got it together, we got our groove back, and got the energy back.”
Indiana opened the second half on a 14-2 run and never looked back.
After the Fort Wayne loss laid bare Indiana’s flaws and deficiencies, Sunday’s game was an opportunity to put the pieces back together. Although the Hoosiers missed Blackmon’s presence, they tried to take steps toward better ball movement, greater ball security and a more sound approach against the Delta Devils.
It’s not a game worth putting much stock into, but it served its purpose — especially as a chance to bounce back from defeat.
“Like I said to our team the other day, when you play the way we played against Kansas, and it’s like a game in the Elite 8,” Crean said. “And you win it, and it feels great. We play the way we did the other night, it’s like losing to a first round opponent. And they earned the victory and we didn’t. Each game counts for something, just like the learning experience counts, just like every game’s learning experience counts. But the most important thing that you got to have daily is the edge.”
And that edge will take on a much greater importance for the Hoosiers if they’re required to take on the Tar Heels without their top scorer.