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How losing James Blackmon Jr. changes Indiana

Here's an in-depth, analytical look at the specific ways Indiana is a different team -- on both ends of the floor -- without James Blackmon Jr., who will miss the remainder of the season.

In my postgame analysis after Indiana's win over Wisconsin on Tuesday night, I touched on a concept that will be relevant for Indiana basketball for the remainder of the season. Under that concept, there are two assumptions:

  1. Indiana is a better offensive team when James Blackmon is on the floor.
  2. Indiana is a better defensive team when James Blackmon doees not play.

Now, the variables to the assumptions are what will ultiimately determine how successful Indiana's season ultimately becomes. The variables are simply: HOW MUCH BETTER are the Hoosiers defensively without Blackmon, and HOW MUCH WORSE are they offensively without him? That is, does the defensive improvement outweigh everything Blackmon did on the other end of the court?

I took a long, detailed look at what specific things are different for this team without Blackmon, and I have screenshot photos to illustrate the key differences. 

NEGATIVE DIFFERENCES

1. COURT SPACE: Other than the actual 16 points he provided per game, this is probably the most significant factor responsible for Indiana's lower offensive output without Blackmon. Tom Crean has mentioned it numerous time since the injury, and he's right: Other teams pay a ton of attention to Blackmon, and they respect his perimeter shot much more than they do other players. 

Above is a grainy photo (I apologize) of a possession against Duke. Indiana is running a high ball screen with Yogi Ferrell and Thomas Bryant, but notice how far out Grayson Allen is to guard Blackmon. Blackmon is standing almost at half court, but Duke, determined not to let him get any open shots, is essenitally guarding him all over the floor. Allen is almost completely out of the play, allowing Ferrell to run his pick and roll with plenty of open space to operate.

In this image from the game against Wisconsin on Tuesday night, Ferrell and Bryant are again running a high pick and roll with Ferrell dribbling to his left. Bryant's defender is playing it the same way Duke did, but notice how far Bronson Koenig is playing off Robert Johnson on the right wing. Yes, he's on the weak side, but so was Blackmon in the other image, and Allen was guarding him beyond the NBA 3-point line. Here, though, Koenig's foot is almost in the paint, leaving the middle much more clogged than it was in the image against Duke. It should be noted that Wisconsin does regularly play defense differently than Duke anyway, but the difference in the way the same play was defended with Blackmon and without him is quite telling. 

Among the main things the Hoosiers can't replicate without Blackmon is his quick release. Johnson doesn't have a slow release, but it takes much longer than Blackmon's does, which allows defenders to play further off of him when he doesn't have the ball than they would Blackmon. 

2. UNWAVERING ATTENTION: No matter where he is on the floor, you better bet the opponent is always paying close attention to Blackmon. He's often guarded by one of the other team's best defenders, and like we saw in the Duke image, he has to be guarded beyond the 3-point line, even when he's off the ball sometimes. That attention, combined with the attention always paid to Yogi Ferrell, opens up plenty of open shots for guys like Johnson. Johnson can fly under the radar as the third best offensive player on the floor, meaning he'll likely be guarded by the opposition's third best perimeter defender. Not only that, but the two best defenders are busy guarding Ferrell and Blackmon, so they can't offer help to Johnson's man.

Johnson's man will often be drawn to help on Ferrell or Blackmon when they drive, however, leaving Johnson free to either cut, or stand at the 3-point line for an open opportunity.

Now, Johnson is relied upon to be the second creater on offense, and he's also being guraded by better defenders. He's being asked to do some of the things Blackmon did for this team, but he's just not as good at them as Blackmon is.

Johnson is in a shooting slump right now, and Blackmon's absence isn't the only reason for that. He's missing some good looks. But it is one of the reasons. Prior to Blackmon's injury, the majority of Johnson's shots looked something like this (though not to this extreme). 

On this possession against Duke, Blackmon did such a good job running the court that Johnson was able to relocate to the right corner for a wide open 3. Blackmon absolutely excels at running the court on a make or a miss, and nobody else on the team comes close to matching him. Great teams run to the corners, average teams run to the wings. Blackmon almost always gets to the corner in transition if he doesn't bring the ball up. Johnson and Nick Zeisloft, if you notice, always end up on the wings. Running the court with the intensity that Blackmon does creates transition opportunites that aren't there without him, and it also draws the defense to him, leaving others open for easy baskets.

Life without Blackmon. These are the looks Johnson has been getting in Big Ten play, and while it initially looked somewhat open, Johnson's shot takes longer to get off than Blackmon's, and literally 3 Wisconsin defenders are running at him here. Johnson opts to put the ball on the floor, but since there is so much traffic in the middle because of the lack of court spacing and perimeter shooting threats, Johnson turns the ball over.

3. CREATOR: Ferrell handles the ball a ton and runs the show for Indiana, but he can't do it every possession, whether he's in or out of the game. Blackmon has served as Indiana's second creator offensively, giving Ferrell a chance to rest a bit. But not everyone is capable of being a creator, as we've seen since Blackmon's absence. When plays break down and Indiana just needs to get a shot, Ferrell and Blackmon are about the only two guys on the IU roster that can get that done without turning it over. 

This isn't a knock on Johnson, it's simply a fact. Blackmon has plenty of room to improve defensively and he tends to be too much of a ball stopper at times, but every team needs a guy that can create his own offense and offense for others, and Blackmon was one of the best on the team at doing that. 

And while Blackmon sometimes commits careless turnovers, the fact of the matter is he turns the ball over at a much lower rate than Johnson and Troy Williams, the two guys Crean has attempted to use as a second creator in Blackmon's absence. 

Johnson has 6 points and 13 turnovers in three games without Blackmon, an average of 4.33 turnovers per game. He had only 19 turnovers in the first 13 games of the season, an average of less than 1.5 turnovers per game. 

Blackmon, while playing the same role Johnson is playing now, averaged 1.9 turnovers per game this season and just 1.6 per game last season. Even though the ball was in his hands a lot, his turnover rate was low. The same cannot be said for Johnson, and that's one of the primary reasons this offense won't be as good going forward.

POSITIVE DIFFERENCES

1. DEFENSE: It's a rather broad bullet point, but inserting guys like Collin Hartman, OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan into the lineup in place of Blackmon makes Indiana better in all areas of defense. Anunoby and Morgan are among the best on-ball defenders on the roster, but they're also perhaps the best two post defenders on the team (See: Nigel Hayes). 

Even though they're merely freshmen (See: The Verve Pipe. Outstanding song), Anunoby and Morgan have rarely been out of place defensively, even with Indiana's sometimes complicated model of switching.

2. ENTHUSIASM: Along the same lines, and perhaps most importantly, Morgan, Anunoby and Thomas Bryant bring incredible enthusiasm expressed in the form of outward emotion. More specifically, the three freshmen have a real passion for playing defense, which I believe has had a great deal to do with IU's improvement on that end. 

This isn't to suggest Blackmon doesn't have enthusiasm, he simply isn't a vocal guy. And he doesn't share the same passion on the defensive end. If you've noticed, Anunoby, Bryant and Morgan all react emphatically when they make big defensive plays, even though they're often the youngest players on the floor. They aren't afraid, and they don't care what anybody thinks about them. 

That's been refreshing to the Hoosiers, and it has led to even more defensive energy from veterans like Ferrell. After watching the Wisconsin tape back several times, it seems to me that this group is so much closer than IU has been since the 2012-13 season. After IU beat Wisconsin, Johnson and Ferrell briefly discussed something on the court, then shared a big, genuine hug. Bryant, who was standing next to the two guards, wanted to get in on the love fest, and he gave Ferrell a bear hug before shaking hands with Wisconsin.

There's a carefree passion to this team right now, and while losing Blackmon obviously hurts Indiana in key ways, I believe this team saw a glimpse of what its defensive identity could be in the comeback win over Notre Dame, and the Hoosiers realized how good they could be if they only worked on that end all the time. 

And here's one last thing: What would Indiana's record be in Big Ten play if Anunoby hadn't come on like he did? With Johnson and Williams struggling, there would have been no one else to truly spread the floor if Anunoby hadn't started burying 3 after 3. At best, I say IU would be 1-2 without his shooting alone, and maybe 0-3.

NET: POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE?

Going back to the beginning of this piece, losing Blackmon clearly makes Indiana better defensively but worse offensively. But is his loss, and the ensuing emergence from Anunoby and Morgan, a net gain or a net loss for Indiana?

My answer: Net loss.

Here's why: With Blackmon, Indiana has one of the 10 best offenses in the country. Offense, without question, is Indiana's absolute strength. So weakening an absolute strength, while improving a relative weakness, is not a net gain, in my opinion. 

[And before you all send me a million emails saying Indiana's defense was not a "relative weakness": By definition, yes it was. IU ranked near 115th nationally in defensive efficiency, which is not even in the bottom half of division one teams. An absolute weakness, by definition, would have to be much closer to the bottom. Because Indiana's offense ranked in the top 10, it is considered an absolute strength.]

Here's an analogy for you: An incredible vocalist is not a great songwriter and doesn't write many of his own songs. This artist, one of the top 10 singers in the world, is likely to be nominated for Grammy awards. But if this vocalist is just say, a top 50 singer but improves his songwriting some, he's not as likely to win Grammys because he doesn't do anything great, though he'll still appear on the Billboard Top 100 with a number of songs. 

In this case, Grammy awards would represent a Big Ten or national championship, and the Billboard Top 100 songs would represent big wins over ranked teams.

It's not a perfect analogy, granted, but there you go. You can take it, or tell me an idiot. Or both, I don't mind. Thanks for reading.


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