After a turbulent 2013-2014 college basketball season, Bloomington, Indiana was transformed into a scene of mass exodus. Seven players departed from last season’s 17-15 crimson-and-cream squad: Noah Vonleh, Will Sheehey, Evan Gordon, Luke Fischer, Austin Etherington, Jeremy Hollowell and Peter Jurkin.
Despite back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2012 and 2013, Tom Crean has found himself under siege from players, alumni, students and media. In this modern age of immediate gratification and instant reaction, success is fleeting; twenty-win seasons and deep postseason runs relegated to no more than an ephemeral flash across the college hoops landscape.
Even in an age of one-and-done prodigies, with supremely talented juniors and seniors reclassified as endangered species, Crean’s current crop is considered young. Indiana basketball will have just three juniors on its roster this season.
Kevin ” Yogi” Ferrell is the undisputed Hoosier captain after leading the team in minutes (33.8), points (17.3) and assists (3.9) per game last season. He’ll run the offense while the others take their cues. The only problem is, who will be running beside him?
Hanner Mosquera-Perea is a 6-foot-9, 230-pound enigma equipped with raw basketball talent and dubious decision-making skills. He averaged just 7.7 minutes per game last season as a sophomore and was suspended for two games following an arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Ryan Burton, despite his status in the media guide as a junior, will be just as fresh to the program as any after walking on following two seasons at Bellarmine University.
Crean doesn’t have upperclassmen to lean on, nor does he have much leeway to toy with a multitude of experimental lineups.
The key to Indiana to successfully navigating the hostile realm of Big Ten basketball lies in the smooth shooting stroke of freshman James Blackmon, Jr.
A 6-4, 195 pounds, genuine Hoosier Blackmon was put on this Earth to score the ball. His 33.4 points per game last season at Marion High School (Ind.) was fueled by an awe-inspiring display of jump shooting.
Blackmon can’t be accused of holding anything back during his senior season at Marion, gunning 186 threes (8.8 per game) and 379 total shots (18 per game). 88 of those immaculately released threes found their mark, good for an other-worldly 47 percent. Just for a bit of perspective — and admittedly, some ridiculous statistical spotlighting — Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, currently scrapping for a spot on Team USA, shot only 41.8 percent from the free throw line last season.
Offensively, Indiana was a mess for much of last season, often appearing to hoist shots in the general direction of the rim with nothing more than a fleeting glance to the sky to look for help from some invisible basketball deity. If there are basketball gods, they surely deemed the Hoosier offense blasphemous last season.
Indiana ranked 127th in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Offense rating, which is a measure of a teams offensive efficiency and points per possession against a league average defense. Crean found his offense outperformed by perennial hardwood powerhouses Youngstown State, Radford and, of course, in-state rival Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. (Well, I never said those clamoring for Crean’s head didn’t have a few legitimate grievances.)
Blackmon injects immediate offense to a team desperately in need of a compliment to Ferrell, who too often last season found himself masquerading as a psuedo-Superman devoid of a Justice League. Crean possessed a top-10 NBA Draft pick in Noah Vonleh in 2013-2014, but appeared woefully befuddled when it came to effectively leveraging his skills. He must not make that mistake with Blackmon, by all accounts an even more NCAA-ready prospect.
With all the attention given to his prodigious shooting ability, Blackmon’s other skills often seem overlooked. His transcendent shooting talent belies the fact that the 19-year-old is a far more dangerous offensive weapon than one might assume.
His role as an offensive focal point at Marion over the past several seasons has allowed Blackmon to develop into an adroit ball handler. His deceptively speedy first step works with his immense shooting ability to keep defenders off balance, creating brief openings for Blackmon to power through en route to the rim.
Blackmon has proven to be a strong rebounder for his size, a skill the diminutive Indiana front line sorely needs after the loss of one of the best rebound hoarders in the nation (Vonleh). His playmaking ability as a lead handler needs work, but Ferrell will be doing most of the heavy lifting on that end. More importantly, Blackmon can push the ball and finish in transition, a must in an offense expected to play a brisk pace.
The harsh landscape of Big Ten basketball is largely unforgiving to freshman. There’s rarely a team in the league that affords a “soft” game, although Indiana does get incoming punching bag Rutgers twice. Fortunately for Crean and Indiana, Blackmon’s athletic DNA comprises an ideal mix of maturity, poise and cold-blooded Kobe-esque instinct, enough so that he should shrug off the early conference hazing.
It’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure to place on the shoulders of a 19-year-old who has yet to step onto the hallowed hardwood at Assembly Hall, but the 2014-2015 Hoosier season will only go as smoothly as James Blackmon’s jumper does. Should he find the mark, as he’s done his entire life, Indiana could find itself a surprise contender in one of the most difficult conferences in the nation.
If that beautiful jumper is off? Well, then Rutgers might not be the only conference punching bag this year.