Since Indiana’s unexpected defensive resurgence last January coincided with James Blackmon’s season-ending knee injury, the 6-foot-4 guard became a scapegoat for the team’s inability to generate enough early-season stops.
There was even a misguided school of thought that the Hoosiers were better off without their second-leading scorer.
You won’t find any Indiana fans making that argument this season after Blackmon’s brilliant performance during the 11th-ranked Hoosiers 103-99 overtime victory over third-ranked Kansas on Friday night in Honolulu. Blackmon scored 22 of his 26 points after halftime and sank four 3-pointers, none bigger than the one that gave Indiana the lead for good with just over two minutes left in overtime.
Seeing Blackmon make such a big impact was a mild surprise considering he’s still barely 10 months removed from ACL surgery — his third major knee injury in recent years. He appeared to have fully regained his previous quickness off the dribble, which complements his feathery shooting stroke.
While Blackmon will still never be mistaken for a defensive stopper, his strengths are more valuable to this year’s Indiana team and his weaknesses are easier to hide.
The presence of versatile defenders O.G. Anunoby, Juwan Morgan and Freddie McSwain gives Indiana coach Tom Crean plenty of options to deploy against opponents’ top scorers. By contrast, with Yogi Ferrell having graduated and Troy Williams having entered the NBA draft, Crean needs a prolific perimeter scorer like Blackmon who is capable of spacing the floor and creating his own shot.
Blackmon had plenty of help on Friday night in spearheading a season-opening victory that should look awfully good for the Hoosiers come March. Sophomore center Thomas Bryant tallied 19 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out, Anunoby added 13 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks and freshman guard Curtis Jones contributed 15 points off the bench including a key 3-pointer to extend Indiana’s lead to four late in overtime.
If Indiana’s victory cemented the Hoosiers as a Big Ten title threat, Kansas’ loss did nothing to diminish the Jayhawks’ status as the favorite in the Big 12. This was a high-level game in spite of a refereeing crew that called 60 fouls and seemed to blow their whistle without fail every 15 seconds.
Frank Mason singlehandedly kept Kansas competitive late in regulation and overtime, scoring 30 points, dishing out nine assists and consistently getting into the lane. Carlton Bragg, Devonte Graham and Landen Lucas each had some nice moments too before fouling out late in the game.
One of the few disappointing aspects to the game for either side was the debut of heralded Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, who scored nine points on 3-for-11 shooting and still appeared to be trying to figure out how best to score effectively. It was also worrisome for the Jayhawks that Bill Self repeatedly went to four-guard looks and did not appear to trust freshman big men Mitch Lightfoot or Udoka Azubuike yet.
Regardless, there’s plenty of time for Jackson to live up to his hype and his fellow freshmen to gain Self’s trust.
Indiana beat a very good team and at the center of the victory was a player who has received more than his fair share of criticism recently.
You can debate whether Blackmon’s injury contributed to Indiana’s defensive resurgence last season, but there’s no denying that his return will make the Hoosiers a stronger, more balanced team this year.
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