This has been a long time coming for James Blackmon at Indiana.
Sure, sure. Maybe an half-empty Bryce Jordan Center wasn’t the platform of a dream, a moment the better part of a decade in the making. But with Indiana decimated by injury and all optimism on a deathbed, the Fort Wayne native simply did for Indiana what he came to Bloomington to do. Make the shot.
And now down to out-of-basketball-last-year, walk-on Zach McRoberts at the starting forward position, Indiana’s best shot at success might just be to throw Blackmon the keys, hop in the passenger seat, and go for a ride.
Why? Indiana will only go as far as he can take them, anyway.
James Blackmon was committed to Tom Crean as a high school freshman. Then he wasn’t. Then, at the last moment, he was again. A forgettable freshman campaign gave way to knee troubles as a sophomore, and an early end to that season came. Then, you know, that happened. The 2016 Big Ten title run. In his absence.
It’s perhaps led to Blackmon becoming the most scrutinized player relative to his value of Tom Crean’s tenure. Complaints about his defense, his work ethic, his shooting -- whatever complaint you’d like to add to the laundry list has likely been aired by a Indiana fan on Twitter over the course of his career. Some of that, while maybe harsh & over-the-top when directed at an unpaid college athlete, is valid critique. Holding your breath for Blackmon to morph into an All-Big Ten defender this season would be the work of a fool.
But there’s plenty of players — both in the NBA and in college basketball — that get away with being defensively deficient because their offensive gifts are far and away worth the cost. Look no further than the leading NBA MVP candidate this season. For all the focus on what he is not, what James Blackmon is and and what he can do for a basketball team is often overlooked. He is a scorer distilled to purest form, perhaps the only player on Tom Crean’s roster capable of creating a shot for himself when needed. See, Exhibit A:
Indiana beats Penn State at the buzzer, but the bigger story is OG Anunoby's knee. pic.twitter.com/cUgLGwgUkV— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) January 19, 2017
That shot should be representative of what Tom Crean’s offensive philosophy is through the remainder of the 2017 season: ride James Blackmon like a goddanged horse and hope it works out.
Consider! With the current injury state, Indiana’s roster has taken a turn from Talented But Flawed to Ass Out Loud. Tom Crean already dearly missed expected starter and senior leader Collin Hartman at the forward spot — and it’s more than likely that we’ve seen him play his last game at Indiana. Juwan Morgan is listed as day-to-day and is in a walking boot, which at Indiana could mean he’ll play Saturday or never again this season. And, OG Anunoby, is, well -- when your coach reacts like this, it’s not good.
Hell, Tim Priller didn’t even travel with the team to Penn State. So, if you’re following along, here’s a complete list of who Tom Crean will have available at the forward position Saturday for Michigan State:
Zach McRoberts, Freddie McSwain.
Christ. If you’re yet to do it, it’s probably time to adjust your outlook on Indiana’s 2016-17 basketball season. An Indiana team down this many players at the forward position just simply isn’t a good one, and there’s little a head coach can do when that sort of an injury bug strikes.
But if you’re looking for hope, consider that Not Good teams have won gone on all the way to win national championships in extremely recent history. As a matter of fact, recent history would indicate being a Not Good team with one dominant, alpha scoring guard is a better strategy to taking home a national title than, say, playing at Tony Bennett’s tempo or being in the Big Ten conference. Just ask UConn fans about 2011 or 2014.
Even when the roster is fully healthy, Indiana was dependent on James Blackmon being that sort of scorer. This season, Indiana is 1-3 against the KenPom Top 250 when Blackmon scores 15 or less points in a game. Tom Crean teams are dependent on the premise that players can shoot and score, and this 2016-17 iteration has been notably worse in that area to date than previous successful Crean teams. For all the deserved draft hype around OG Anunoby & Thomas Bryant, Indiana’s best and most important player has been James Blackmon for the balance of the 2016-17 season. He is the closest thing Indiana has to resembling a college basketball superstar, and otherwordly heroics from him will be required to carry this team deep into March.
And, if last night is any indication, James Blackmon’s been waiting on this moment.