Junior guard Robert Johnson has done everything IU Coach Tom Crean has asked of him in the early going.
He’s just one of two Hoosiers to start all eight games this season and has brought the energy to every one of them. Crean even praised Johnson after the North Carolina game by saying he was on another level defensively.
The young guys have really looked up to Johnson as well. Freshman forward De’Ron Davis said Johnson is very important as a leader and player as they continue their development moving forward.
“Rob controls the tempo on the floor, and he controls everybody pretty much,” Davis said. “As a team, we’re working on our communication, but Rob really controls the tempo.”
Coming off a stretch during which IU played four games in eight days, Crean said Johnson and sophomore forwards Thomas Bryant and Juwan Morgan took the reins during practice throughout the week when taking more responsibility for their teammates.
In Johnson’s game, it was apparent.
At the beginning of the season, Crean talked about how it wasn’t going to be just one guy that replaced point guard Yogi Ferrell this season; rather, it would be a group of guys. With junior guard Josh Newkirk playing point guard the majority of the time, Johnson has set the tone with a defense-first mindset that turns into offense on the other end.
During the eight-day period, in which the Hoosiers went 4-0, Johnson averaged nearly 12 points and five rebounds per game. Against North Carolina, the Richmond, Virginia, native forced three steals in the first half to go along with 10 points as the Hoosiers kept their feet on the gas against the Tar Heels and maintained a wire-to-wire lead in the game.
Keeping offenses scoreless for a long period of time was also a trend in both weekend games against SIU-Edwardsville and Southeast Missouri State. Johnson credits the Hoosiers’ communication.
“I think it was just a connectivity of ourselves on defense,” Johnson said. “The guys are really talking and active, especially in the one stretch on the first half. I think we set the tone early how we wanted to handle certain guys and take away tendencies.”
Not only did Johnson take away North Carolina guard Joel Berry’s tendencies last Wednesday, but Johnson and junior guard James Blackmon Jr. rebounded the ball efficiently against the Tar Heels. Crean emphasized guard rebounding heavily, and it’s starting to become a staple in the Hoosiers’ game plan.
Johnson and Blackmon combined for 15 boards against the Tar Heels, and during the next two games they combined for nearly 12 a game. Crean has found success with teams in the past when the guards hit the glass, such as Ferrell, Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls, and that’s the trend the Hoosiers are heading toward now.
“That’s where we have to be successful. We’ve had good guard rebounders here,” Crean said. “Yogi was a very good guard rebounder, Vic was fantastic, more or less Jordan would go in there and get defense boards. There’s no reason for us to have five guys the majority of the time under the foul line ready to rebound.”
After a busy week, IU won’t play its next game until Saturday at 4 p.m. against Houston Baptist, and then it will have to wait another week to play Butler in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 17.
Johnson said he was proud of the way his teammates found energy throughout the week by being locked in to little things like shootarounds and film, and although they’ll play just two games in two weeks, they still have to prepare the same.
“It’s all about mindset still,” Johnson said. “Coming into practice and competing like it is a game — I think that’s the best way to stay sharp and not looking ahead and thinking about anything else but the next day.