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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, January 29, 2017 8:56 am

Pregame: Indiana (14-7) at Northwestern (17-4)

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

EVANSTON, Ill. — Rob Judson didn't try to sugarcoat the loss of James Blackmon Jr.

"James is a big loss for our team," said Judson, in his second season as an assistant to Indiana coach Tom Crean. "Our opportunity here at Northwestern is made a lot more difficult without James. Collin Hartman being out, OG (Anunoby) being out and now James, this is a situation as a coach where you do the best that you can with what you have at that moment."

The odds on KenPom.com say the Hoosiers have a chance to win tonight at Welsh-Ryan Arena; common sense says otherwise. Having Blackmon sidelined indefinitely puts this game, and the rest of their season, in a much different light.

Obviously, the absences of Hartman and Anunoby are a factor, too, especially since Juwan Morgan just returned from a foot injury and may still be limited by that. Nonetheless, I suspect Blackmon's health will be the deciding factor for Indiana's NCAA tournament hopes.

All this seems horribly unfair to Blackmon, a soft-spoken junior who had worked so hard to come back from his first two knee injuries. We still don't know the extent of Blackmon's current injury. The team said it is a lower leg injury, which may not technically mean the knee.

But the injury is to the right leg -- the same leg where Blackmon hurt his knee in late November, which kept him out of the lineup for one game. The other more unnerving thing about the incident, which occurred in Thursday's 90-60 loss at Michigan, was that there did not appear to be any contact. Blackmon did it to himself. Just like Anunoby did at Penn State on Jan. 18.

There was no landing awkwardly on another guy's foot. There was no pushing or shoving. Blackmon dribbled up the floor and appeared to hurt the knee on a crossover. No one was touching him. That is not a good sign.

These Hoosiers cannot be serious contenders (for anything) without Blackmon. We may know in the next day or two whether his injury is long-term or whether there is a shorter timetable.

That said, in a weird way, Blackmon's injury takes some of the heat off an IU team that was under a microscope. Expectations bred by last year's regular-season conference title had caught up with this team, and, with three rotation players missing, maybe they can get back to playing basketball without feeling like massive disappointments if they don't win any given game.

Of course, the Hoosiers face a difficult road to the NCAA tourney now, something that seemed all but assured at the start of the season.

Their once-praised depth now is more a liability than strength, with the frontcourt in particular looking thin. For instance, when they brought Zach McRoberts aboard as a walk-on this summer I don’t think the idea was for him to average 22 minutes a game, as he has over the past three. Blackmon was playing extremely well and had been Indiana's most consistent performer.

The Hoosiers are likely going to need big performances out of center Thomas Bryant and swingman Robert Johnson tonight. McRoberts will likely start in place of Blackmon, with Johnson shifting to Blackmon's spot at shooting guard and Morgan rejoining the starting lineup at power forward. McRoberts would be the small forward.

Northwestern has won five in a row. The Wildcats rank 14th in the country in 2-point field goal defense, permitting only 42.6 percent shooting from inside the arc. This is a very tough matchup for Crean and the Hoosiers.