It was a foregone conclusion that James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson would play significant roles as freshmen for Indiana last season. Whether they started or not was more or less irrelevant -- though they both did.
It was just clear from the day Blackmon and Johnson signed their National Letters of Intent that they were talented enough to play early. It was also evident that Tom Crean and the Hoosiers needed significant contributions from their two freshmen if they were going to compete with the best teams in the Big Ten.
Blackmon and Johnson lived up to the hype. Blackmon was second on the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game, and Johnson was fourth at 8.9 points per game. Blackmon played 30 minutes per game -- the most ever by a freshman during Crean's tenure at Indiana -- and Johnson played 27 minutes per contest.
But as impressive as they were, Blackmon and Johnson also experienced their share of freshmen slumps. It takes time for even the best young players to learn the college game and adjust.
It's for that reason that Indiana fans can look forward to even more from the two guards this season. History suggests that Crean-coached players often make their biggest jump between their freshman and sophomore years, and the evidence is even stronger if those players logged heavy minutes as freshmen.
"I definitely think that's true," Johnson said in an exclusive interview with AllHoosiers.com. "When you're a freshman, you come in not knowing what to expect. You gotta get used to a lot of things coming from high school. But coming in last year and playing a lot of minutes like I did, I'm pretty much used to it and know what to expect. I've played in big games and things like that, so it gave me more of a clear vision on things to work on."
"I feel like it will be a huge jump for me because I know more about the system, I know more about what coach Crean wants," Blackmon Jr. told AllHoosiers.com. "Also, I'll be molding into a bigger role this year. It's gonna be a big year."
I looked back at seven players who arrived at Indiana with similar expectations as Blackmon and Johnson and compared their first and second-year numbers. The players: Troy Williams, Yogi Ferrell, Chrisitan Watford, Cody Zeller, Verdell Jones, Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls. Here's what I found:
- All 7 players made the biggest statistical jump between their freshman and sophomore years
- They improved their scoring by an average of 4.6 points per game
- Ferrell had the biggest scoring improvement (9.7 ppg) and Zeller had the smallest improvement (0.9 ppg)
- 5 of the 7 players improved their scoring average between 3.4 and 5.7 points per game
- 6 of the 7 players improved their rebounding average
- 4 of the 7 players averaged more assists in their sophomore season
- 5 of the 7 players shot a better field goal percentage as sophomores
- All 7 players logged more minutes per game as sophomores
What do those numbers suggest? For one, staying in school at Indiana makes you better. But also, getting thrown in the fire as freshmen leads to rapid improvement in the following offseason.
"I don't know what better way to learn the feel of the college game your first year than playing a lot of minutes," Hulls told AllHoosiers.com. "It may have been difficult at times because it's physical and it's the Big Ten, but it gives you an edge over other guys who maybe didn't have those same opportunities."
Hulls said there's no doubt his freshman to sophomore jump was his biggest in his basketball career.
"As a freshman, you're young and thrown into a much more physical, fast, and smarter game than you've ever played before," he said. "Going into you're sophomore year, you're still young, but you're hungry and have been through a whole season. You know what to expect and you take that knowledge and apply it to offseason workouts. The speed of the game and the physicality is something that you want to be sure to be on top of. That was a huge summer for me because I had to continually prove myself and compete to play, and I wanted to play and contribute in big ways."
Blackmon and Johnson are certainly feeling the same hunger that Hulls described, and they're ready to show off their improvements on the court. They now have an understanding of the system and the expectations that coming with being a basketball player at Indiana, and instead can focus on turning weaknesses into strengths.
In essence, that's the difference between last year and this year. Last year, Blackmon and Johnson were busy trying to wrap their minds around all the new information and responsibilities flying their way. There wasn't much time for individual player development or significant strength training.
Heading into year two, that has all changed. Everything has slowed down. College basketball isn't new anymore.
For both Johnson and Blackmon, the focus has been on learning to run the team at the point guard position. At younger ages, the point guard is simply the guy who brings the ball up the court. In college, the point guard is responsible for a whole lot more.
He must be a vocal leader, and he must learn where every other player is supposed to be on the floor.
Johnson says he's ready.
"Most definitely," he said. "I feel confident that I can go out there and lead the team without having a drop off."
Crean often lets his players work out mistakes in practice by themselves rather than yelling or immediately making them run. Johnson's has become a familiar voice in those huddles, something that wasn't the case a year ago. He's comfortable now correcting and helping his teammates when they need it.
"That part has definitely grown a lot, and that's just a credit to coach Crean, harping on me every day about that, being loud, being vocal," Johnson said. "That's something I've tried to focus on."
Blackmon has also spent significant practice time running the point, usually guarded by Yogi Ferrell. Crean has been tough on the former McDonalds All-American in an effort to get the very most out of him.
"If you ask anyone on the team who he's going to go after the hardest every day, it would be me," Blackmon said. "That's something that I like because it gets me better every day. He just wants me to go hard at all times and get the most out of me. That will definitely push me through the year."
Oftentimes, it's Blackmon's defense that Crean harps on. I asked Blackmon if he feels better equipped to defend this season.
I was only half way through the question when Blackmon started to answer.
"Yeah," he said. "I feel a lot more equipped. It was really more of awareness and being in spots than actually the athletic part. The athletic part comes easy for me. It's just being in the right spots and knowing where everyone else has to be because coach Crean wants me to direct everyone else, too."
Blackmon's offseason development was hindered by a knee injury that kept him out for over a month. He had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in mid-July. It was Blackmon's left knee, the same one that caused him to miss a high school season due to a torn ACL.
"Yeah it definitely set me back. It frustrated me more than anything," Blackmon said.
Did it scare you because of what happened before?
"It didn't really scare me at all because I know how I do rehab, and I knew that I could come back better from it," he said.
Blackmon was still back in plenty of time to prepare for the start of practice, and he said he feels caught up from the time he missed.
There will be no sophomore slump for the former Marion star. For he and his current roommate at Tenth and College apartments, a sophomore jump is on the horizon.
"Our relationship has grown so much," Blackmon said of Johnson. "We push each other. When we're on separate teams, he likes to get up into me and get me better with my handle. He's just been a great guy to push me because a lot of top guys don't have that guy that can push them."