It’s not getting any easier for Indiana.
The Hoosiers will be without leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. when it faces Northwestern this evening after the junior guard sustained a lower leg injury during Thursday’s loss at Michigan.
Injuries continue to undercut IU’s potential to fix its season, which has already seen sophomore forward OG Anunoby and senior forward Collin Hartman lost to season-ending knee injuries. Blackmon, meanwhile, will miss an indefinite period of time, forcing the Hoosiers to complete a two-game road swing without one of the nation’s most potent offensive weapons.
“As much as this affects our basketball team — as with all of the other injuries this year — it hurts us much more for James,” IU coach Tom Crean said in a statement. “He has been playing at a very high level and this is unfortunate.”
Indeed, Blackmon’s injury comes mere days after he was named NBC Sports’ national player of the week and co-Big Ten Player of the Week. Officials called an injury timeout for Blackmon with three minutes remaining in the first half at Michigan on Thursday after he pulled up limping while driving the ball across midcourt.
But Blackmon, who has also experienced three major knee surgeries in the past five years, did not come out of the game and went on to play 15 minutes in the second half. He finished with four points and did not attempt a shot in the final period.
That kind of performance is an abberation for the Big Ten’s fourth-leading scorer at 17.6 points per game — and that’s production the Hoosiers will look in multiple directions to replace.
“The whole team is gonna have to raise their level of play higher to make up for a player of James’ caliber,” assistant Rob Judson said. “You look at those two games at Penn state, Michigan State and what he did for our ball club, it’s going to take a whole team concerted effort in order to make up for where he has been having us go.”
Complicating matters for Indiana, beyond the absences of Anunoby and Hartman, is that Juwan Morgan doesn’t yet appear to be 100 percent healthy. Morgan, who missed the Penn State and Michigan State games with a foot injury, returned at Michigan, but continues to feel his way back into action.
Morgan was clearly limited against the Wolverines, playing 11 minutes, scoring three points and grabbing two rebounds. The sophomore had been starting and averaging 20.5 minutes per game prior to the injury.
“We’ll have to see what Juwan can do,” Judson said. “He’s playing with a lot of grit and we’ll need him to continue to do that.”
So the Hoosiers’ task of finding themselves in the wake of the third-worst Big Ten loss of the Tom Crean era is further compounded by continuing health concerns.
At one point this season, one of IU’s greatest attritbutes was its depth. That, now, is getting a test.
Freshmen guards Curtis Jones and Devonte Green have shown flashes of their abilities. In Blackmon’s indefinite absence, they’ll need to produce with greater consistency. Blackmon’s injury may also open more playing time for another freshman — Grant Gelon. The little-used Crown Point native scored a career-high eight points during his two minutes of action late against the Wolverines.
Opposite itself, Indiana tonight will find a Northwestern program playing outstanding basketball, forging a potential course to their first NCAA Tournament bid in program history.
After dropping two in a row to Michigan State and Minnesota to begin Big Ten play, the Wildcats have won five straight, riding the highs of a trio of core players that have made Chis Collins’ third year in Evanston a success.
Native Hoosier Bryant McIntosh can do a little bit of everything at the point guard position. He’s the league’s top assist man at 5.6 per game, while averaging 12.4 points. Although his efficiency from 3-point range is down this year — he’s shooting 27 percent after hitting at a 36 percent clip as a sophomore last year, the Greensburg native is doing a nice job keying the Wildcat attack.
“He’s mixing it up,” IU’s Robert Johnson said. “He’s not just looking to get other guys involved. He’s looking for himself more and I think he’s playing more confident.”
Scottie Lindsey, meanwhile, is turning into a star. Lindsey, who’s averaging 15.6 points, had scored in double figures in each of his first 20 games until turning in five points against Nebraska on Thursday. In his first year as a starter, the junior is developing into one of the most efficient players in the conference.
Vic Law, too, will have IU’s attention. After missing all of last season with a shoulder injury, the former four-star recruit is shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc, whille hitting 87 percent of his free throws during conference play.
While those three have helped Northwestern to its best start in program history, Dererk Pardon is coming off his best game. The sophomore forward scored 19 points and grabbed 22 rebounds against the Cornhuskers, marking the first time since 1999 that a Wildcat pulled down at leasd 20 boards.
“Northwestern is playing at a very, very high level right now,” Judson said. “They will have a tremendous home court tomorrow with their crowd. Bryant McIntosh is running that team masterfully. He’s the top assist player in the Big Ten. Pardon just came off a 19-point, 22 rebound performance, then Lindsey and Law can really get hot and fill it up from the perimeter. So they’re a team that is playing at a high level and it will be a big challenge for our ball club.”
Especially in the absence of Indiana’s top scorer.