Since James Blackmon, Jr. injured his knee early last season, forcing him to have season-ending surgery, a lot changed for IU basketball. The bitter taste of failure in Maui turned to hope as new stars emerged, the team blossomed in Big Ten play and won a league title, and then turned again to glee as the Hoosiers beat Kentucky in the tournament. The season ended in defeat, but not the despair many fans were feeling when Blackmon last laced them up.
Of course, the fact that the massive turnaround mostly coincided with Blackmon’s injury brought out some ill-informed Haters. In some corners of the IU fandom, the idea that Blackmon’s early departure from the 2015-16 season’s stage was what set up the team for success. In some ways that wasn’t wrong – the fact that the vacuum he left allowed players like OG Anunoby to have the space and the increased workload to flourish is just that, a fact. But this shouldn’t reflect poorly on the player himself, despite the fact that many wanted to pin the Maui failure on his shortcomings.
During last year’s tournament there was a brief, ill-sourced rumor that Blackmon was on the way out, with an eye on the transfer market. Those same Haters rejoiced, and were quickly rebuffed. And finally, on Friday night, after long months of preparation, Blackmon had the chance to answer them.
And answer them he did, repeatedly and with authority.
It should be absolutely uncontroversial to say this: without James Blackmon, Jr., Indiana would not have beaten #3 Kansas last weekend. There is no route to victory without his 26 points, and definitely none without his torrid second half (and the three he sank in overtime). He was safely Indiana’s leading scorer, and he made shots when they were needed most.
That in and of itself is impressive. When you take into account the fact that it was against a top-5 team, one that’s perennially Big 12 champions and a top-2 seed in March, it’s even better. Add in the fact that it was Blackmon’s first competitive game since December 22 of last year, it’s almost mind-boggling.
Blackmon wasn’t stellar in the first half, only scoring four points, but it appears he needed those twenty minutes to shake off eleven months of rust. I, for one, think that’s perfectly reasonable.
Of course, shooting and offense were never Blackmon’s problem. Despite a few...holdouts, I think it’s pretty much gospel even among JBJ Likers such as myself that defense is not really his strong suit. It’s not ideal, but it’s simply a reality of his game. And on Friday night, well, it was basically more of the same there (though honestly it wasn’t like anyone was stopping Frank Mason, let’s be real).
The difference is that today, we have the players to mask his deficiencies on the defensive end. Thomas Bryant has matured into a real rim protector. OG is a stellar defender. Length and athleticism team-wide (not to mention effort) make Indiana overall a pretty fair defensive team, even with Blackmon in the lineup. Other guys can cover for him the same way he can cover for a somewhat-below-expectations offensive night for Anunoby by hitting four three pointers and six of seven free throws. Blackmon can score more than he gives up, and for some guys on some teams that’s simply good enough.
Tom Crean was just about as pleased as I was.
I’m just proud of him...It’s been a long road to get him back. He was on the court in the end of the game doing well on the offensive and defensive end. I know it’s November, but it was a great feeling to watch him have the game he had.
Of course, Crean is right. It’s November. IU’s 1-0, not 10-0 or 20-0 or 32-0. There’s a lot of season left. But James Blackmon, Jr. has the tools and the opportunity to shut a lot of people up this year. It’s only one step, but JBJ’s performance against Kansas was an emphatic step in the right direction.