At times this season, Tom Crean has felt compelled to be hard on his juniors, to demand they do more for the Hoosiers’ benefit.
IU’s junior class constitutes the oldest group of available players on the team, but it’s also a bunch that is — in some ways — quiet by nature. On a team void of a senior presence and true vocal leader, Crean has called on his juniors to assert themselves, especially as the season took a turn at the end of December.
Nearly a month later, as the team faces its latest stretch of adversity, juniors Robert Johnson and James Blackmon Jr. are taking the kind of ownership Crean has requested.
Since IU lost valuable sophomores OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan to injuries last week, Johnson and Blackmon, especially, have taken steps toward more completely filling the roles IU needs them to occupy.
That willingness to do more could go a long way toward keeping the Hoosiers afloat entering an important stretch of three road trips in the next four games.
“We had to have that leadership from the juniors before the injury (to Anunoby), but we certainly have to have it now,” Crean said on his weekly radio show.
During the past two games, Johnson and Blackmon are leading in different ways.
Johnson is offering more of a veteran presence and becoming more vocal with his teammates on the floor. In Saturday’s win over Michigan State, Johnson was talking, directing and commanding his fellow Hoosiers throughout the 82-75 victory, much to his coach’s approval.
Johnson — and Morgan, too, for that matter — has some of the natural leadership qualities that IU can lean on, so long as he’s comfortable taking on that role. He’s a tough and smart guard capable of grabbing the reins in the wake of Yogi Ferrell’s graduation. Johnson is also IU’s most experienced player, having started 74 career games.
On Saturday, Johnson looked the part of a trusted presence — accepting and excelling with a tough defensive assignment on Michigan State star freshman Miles Bridges, while also offering his voice in times of need. The defense was one thing, with Johnson filling in against Bridges, whose assignment otherwise may have gone to Anunoby or Morgan.
His guidance was another.
“I think that is crucial that that continues,” Crean said. “If we’re going to be a better basketball team, that has to happen. The next step is for James to be that way, and for Josh (Newkirk to do the same). And not just at home, not just when things are going really smooth, but even when they’re not. That’s going to be really, really key for our juniors because you had a real safety blanket in OG, who can make up for a lot of mistakes and make up for things on the glass. There’s a real comfort level to playing with him because of what he brings defensively and how much attention he gets from the other team.”
Now, IU needs everyone, but especially its juniors to step away from their comfort levels and do a little more. In terms of leadership, that can be a tricky thing.
Vocal leadership isn’t one of Blackmon’s fortes. Crean has said in the past that he’s had to force those qualities out of Blackmon, who is averaging 22.6 points across his last five games.
Though he’s still finding his voice, Blackmon has that sweet shooting stroke. At times, like during his career-high-tying 33-point performance against Michigan State on Saturday, that can be enough.
Blackmon is also growing as a defensive player. He played better on that end of the floor against the Spartans, and Crean says he sees Blackmon growing more consistency on both ends as the junior continues to heal from his latest knee procedure 12 months ago.
“He’s playing good defensively,” Crean said. “That’s key, it really is. It’s key that he can continue to guard well and better. He’s guarding with awareness and he’s getting more athletic because he’s healing. I think it’s real easy to look at guys and where they’re at in a certain place and think that everything is normal even when they haven’t had surgery, let alone when they have had it.”
Consistent and sustained play on both ends of the court is vital given the loss of Anunoby. It’s especially important production from the juniors, who now have to be stewards this team has long required.
“That’s where the juniors have got to be crucial for us,” Crean said.