IU men’s basketball’s big three of sophomore forward Thomas Bryant and junior guards James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson have found success in Hoosier victories this season.
When one of those three players struggles, it affects the entire team. But now, with sophomore forward OG Anunoby out indefinitely after sustaining a knee injury Wednesday night at Penn State, the trio of playmakers will have to play a larger role for IU.
After blowing a 14-point second-half lead and barely pulling out a win at the buzzer against Penn State without Anunoby in the second half and sophomore forward Juwan Morgan for the entire game, it was evident how important the Hoosiers’ current crop of injured players are. On Saturday afternoon when the Michigan State Spartans come to Bloomington the trio will be leaned on heavily to try to push IU to better than .500 in conference play for the first time this season.
“I know everybody will be there and be excited about Saturday. We’re playing a very tough basketball team with a hall-of-fame coach, and we need our crowd’s energy at a fever pitch,” Crean said. “I’m not sure how many guys we’re gonna have, and these guys deserve it. We have the best crowd in the country and we really need them to bring it all on Saturday afternoon.”
Michigan State began the season much like IU. The Spartans were ranked in the top 12 early on but by week four had slipped out of the rankings. By week 10 the Hoosiers followed suit.
The Spartans, which had the 15th-toughest schedule in the nation according to KenPom, lost their first four games against ranked opponents to start the year but have since only dropped three games, including their last two games away from home.
Although many wouldn’t have thought this game would be a battle between two unranked teams in November, there will still be a high talent level on the floor with freshman forward Miles Bridges and sophomore forward Nick Ward headlining the Spartans. Freshman forward De’Ron Davis could step into the starting lineup and provide big minutes and fresh legs for IU down low with Morgan’s status up in the air and Anunoby out.
Blackmon, Johnson and Bryant each scored 17 points last game against Penn State while being able to overcome adversity from their teammates’ injuries, turnovers, foul trouble and tired legs near the end of the game.
The trio of Hoosiers each played 16 minutes or more in the second half due to IU’s lack of depth, and all of them finished the game having played at least five more minutes than their average through the start of Big Ten play.
“We just knew we had to all step up as a collective group,” Bryant said following the Penn State win. “If one of our guys goes down, all of us step up even more. It was hard for us to see him go down like that, but we knew we had to pick it up in the second half.”
It’s not just the leaders on this team that need to step up in a time of need for IU. The bench players will also start to get more meaningful minutes with a depleted Hoosier lineup. In addition to the 6-foot-10 Davis, who can create high-to-low action on offense with Bryant, bench players such as junior forward Freddie McSwain Jr. and sophomore forward Zach McRoberts could see their minutes increase.
McSwain grabbed two rebounds and had one monstrous put-back dunk in five minutes of second-half action Wednesday night. McRoberts played 10 minutes in the second half and recorded two blocks, two steals, two assists and two rebounds while whizzing around the court.
“The good thing about us is that a lot of guys play for us so it’s not like you throw a guy in there who’s necessarily not ready,” Johnson said. “It all comes back to being ready to play on demand, and I think guys like Freddie and Zach did a good job coming in ready to contribute.”
Freshman guards Devonte Green and Curtis Jones have also seen their minutes rise in Big Ten play and could quickly become big contributors if needed. The Hoosiers are a combined plus 33 in the past four games with one of their freshman guards on the court compared to a minus-8 rating when junior guard Josh Newkirk is on the floor.
Not everything is leaning on the trio of Blackmon, Johnson and Bryant when the Hoosiers face the Spartans on Saturday, but when those guys are going that’s when the Hoosiers are at their best. In the three conference wins, the trio has combined to score 59 percent of IU’s points. In the losses they produced 52 percent of IU’s scoring output.
“We always like a game-winner, but we look forward to the next step,” Bryant said following Penn State. “Just go to the film and learn what we can learn from this game. We have to keep improving each and every game and really just build on this game, hopefully it carries us with a little bit of momentum, but we’re just looking to get better each day.”