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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 7:41 pm

Loss indicative of Indiana's need for leadership

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON — Collin Hartman, in street clothes, of course, sat on the bench looking intently onto the court as Indiana opened its Big Ten schedule Wednesday night with a surprising 87-83 loss Nebraska.

Look, Hartman hates to miss any time. And he remains likely to sit out this entire season. But leave it to the start of Big Ten play to really twist the knife. James Blackmon Jr. knows the feeling. It killed him to miss every Big Ten game last season due to his own knee injury.

Tonight's contest marked the Hoosier guard's first Big Ten action since March 13, 2015.

"What I've been looking forward to since the beginning of this season," Blackmon said. "Excited to be out there because I had to sit out last year. I put that on my chest and a chip on my shoulder.’’

Hartman, whose injury arc begins where Blackmon's ends, sat at the edge of his seat like a head coach at times, screaming instructions onto the court. Since suffering a serious injury to his left knee in training camp, the senior forward has taken young players under his wing and mentored them.

The need for player-driven leadership has never been more apparent, as junior forward Robert Johnson basically said after the loss to Nebraska that Indiana had not taken the Cornhuskers seriously. They entered with the worst record in the Big Ten and exited with their second-ever win in Bloomington.

Which brings this back to Hartman, the Hoosiers' lone senior, a missing piece to the puzzle who is trying his best to be the voice of the better angel on his teammates' shoulders. Even from the sidelines. Even as an inactive player.

"He's been tremendous," Indiana assistant coach Chuck Martin said. "His spirit's been really, really high. You can't put a price tag on Collin. Obviously, we want him on the floor, but he's a guy that helped us win a Big Ten (regular-season title) last year, a guy that helped us go undefeated at home last year, a guy that helped us get to a Sweet 16. And although he physically is not on the court, his presence in the locker room, in timeouts, at practice, has been tremendous."

As the calendar flips to 2017, Hartman and Indiana coach Tom Crean continue to collect information on the momentous decision they have to make in the next couple months.

Assuming there is some chance Hartman is cleared to play by the Hoosiers' doctors, do they throw him into the fire in March? Or do they preserve his final year of eligibility and turn Hartman into a medical redshirt?

There are plenty of factors to consider.

Even if Hartman takes the court this season, there's no guarantee he can perform effectively. He is a player whose value lies in rhythm and feel and on-court chemistry with teammates. If that's compromised by months of rust or physical limitation, there isn't much point in playing him.

More likely, Hartman's rehabilitation timeline doesn't even allow the possibility. In that case, is Hartman (a business major) prepared to enroll in graduate school while he rejoins the team in the 2017-18 campaign? And if so, would Indiana opt to set aside a scholarship?

Here's where we remind you the team has too many scholarship players committed for next year (two over the NCAA limit of 13). But there will undoubtedly be some NBA departures, maybe a transfer or two, and the proven value of Hartman could outweigh the promise of spending another scholarship on an incoming recruit.

Hartman said in October he and Crean would hash out his situation deeper into the season. That time is drawing nearer.

In the meantime, Hartman is acting like a coach at practices and games.

"Our young guys can use him as a sounding board," Martin said. "What works. What doesn't work. Don't get frustrated. Hey, this is what we have to look forward to in Big Ten play. So Collin's been tremendous. He really has."

Before Wednesday's game, Crean mentioned the importance of players-only discussions when they are away from coaches. No doubt, Hartman tried to get across to teammates how difficult a league the Big Ten can be.

But the upset loss and Johnson's comments only prove the Hoosiers need to listen more intently to Hartman, and that Hartman needs help from Johnson, Josh Newkirk and James Blackmon Jr. -- the prominent juniors.