It wasn't always easy, but the Hoosiers keep winning. Indiana picks up their second straight road Big Ten win and seventh straight overall in Lincoln behind 22 points from Yogi Ferrell and 19 from Thomas Bryant. What did we learn?
1. Indiana can survive without James Blackmon. In fact, they might even improve in the short term.
Ready for a take? Here is a take. Indiana might have played its most complete game without James Blackmon in the lineup.
WHOA WHOA WHAT ARE YOU SAYING BENCH BLACKMON
No, no, no. Please don't let that be the takeaway here. If Indiana's goals are to compete late into March, Tom Crean undoubtedly needs one of the nation's best outside scorers on the floor. Blackmon keeps Indiana's ceiling ridiculously high -- allowing them to play at a frenetic pace and shoot three-pointers at record clips when things are clicking. The problem for Indiana, however, is that it hasn't been particularly clicking. The Hoosiers' defensive struggles in 2015 has been discussed ad nauseum. The offense has been a bit too frenetic, leading to turnovers en masse.
Losing Blackmon for any period of time forces Indiana to modify this team's identity. With a lack of guard depth, Tom Crean's caffeinated brand of basketball as dialed back a bit on Saturday, forcing the Hoosiers to play deeper into the shot clock, and through Thomas Bryant in the low post. It also frees up possessions for Yogi Ferrell to do exactly what he does best -- be a ball-dominant, score-first point guard in the mold of the Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier-types that singlehandledly willed teams to championships. That's exactly the role he filled in the second half of this one -- almost beating Nebraska alone on a a string of off-the-dribble hot-shooting.
WAIT ARE YOU SAYING BLACKMON AND FERRELL CAN'T PLAY TOGETHER
Well, no. Not that either. They absolutely can. But it might not be a perfect fit for them to play together with the remaining personnel on this roster. The NBA is more apt to play true "second units" where another score-first guard can buoy a lineup. In a perfect world, that's where the two reside -- on different units for a majority of the game but both on the floor in late-game situations. There are teams aplenty over history that have gotten better when moving one of their best five players to the bench to allow certain pieces to fit together differently. That's not at all an indictment of Blackmon. His skill set just leans him to be more successful when he can use possessions on the offensive end and be surrounded by better defenders on the other.
Of course, this entire discussion is moot if Blackmon's injury is serious to the point that doesn't return this season. The sophomore guard has had knee troubles before -- and this injury is undoubtedly concerning. If Blackmon misses significant, it will force other contributors to the forefront. Those players would almost certainly not be better players right away and it would cost Indiana much-important guard depth -- but that might force Indiana into a less-frenetic style of basketball. And that, maybe, might, lead to more wins right now.
Speaking of those players...
2. Indiana's defense was much better. OG Anunoby was one reason for that.
If Anunoby becomes a star at Indiana, January 2, 2016 was the day it began. The freshman tossed in 11 points, only behind Bryant & Ferrell -- but that might not have been his most valuable contribution on the day.
Indiana Athletics often shouted the "POSITIONLESS BASKETBALL GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS" message from the mountaintops (or the SID's office, whatever) before the season. Ignoring the fact that creating such an unrealistic expectation among fans is borderline PR malpractice, the beauty of what the Golden State Warriors have done with positionless basketball is their work on the defensive end. The pieces fit together beautifully and in a complimentary manner -- from shooting, to bench contributors, to defensive big guys. It then becomes a beautiful, high-paced basketball concerto that is complete on both ends. Rolling the balls out, tossing a bunch of shooters on the floor, and calling it POSITIONLESS BASKETBALL is, well, not that. It's just failing to attempt to fit a roster together in a complimentary manner, crapping in your hand, flinging it a the wall, and WELP HOPE THIS WORKS. This is what, at times, Indiana has looked like in the 2015-16 season.
Anunoby's versatility and athleticism on the defensive end of the glass fills a glaring hole for an Indiana team that often struggled to match up on the defensive end. He's athletic. He can defend. He rebounds. He does quantifiable, measurable things that can help Indiana that are not HEART and GRIT. Nebraska shot 43.6% from the field Saturday -- and OG Anunoby is one reason for that. Play him. Play him more. Then play him some more. He is good. I like him. I am going to make this a thing, and you are probably going to get sick of it. Sorry.
3. Thomas Bryant's looking less and less like a freshman on the defensive end.
Earlier in the year, Thomas Bryant had no idea how to guard a ball screen. It was bad. I had video to prove it. Vine deleted it, I think. (Hi, DMCA!) But, yeah, it was bad. Take my word for it.
Today, this. This is better. This is good-ish.
For all the crap Tom Crean catches on the internet, player development has been one of his strengths at Indiana. Bryant is getting better, measurably, on the defensive end. Real recognize real, or something.