Indiana’s performance against Michigan State on Friday left little room for optimism. The Hoosiers were realistically dismantled by a team vying to make a run at a National Championship. Indiana was outplayed in almost every facet of the game, and the team’s best player, Juwan Morgan, was sidelined with an ankle injury. As difficult of a loss as it was for Indiana, there was still one positive that clearly shined through.
Senior guard Robert Johnson, in the midst of chaotic roster fluctuation and straining tournament hopes, has found himself.
Against Michigan State, Johnson had a team leading 21 points while shooting 4 for 6 from three-point range. In addition, Johnson added seven rebounds against a Spartan team fueled by front court size.
Johnson’s performance on Friday served not only as a glimmer of hope, but also as a continuation of previous success.
Johnson’s 21 points helped to cement his best four game stretch of the season, and arguably of his career. Statistically, the 76 points that Johnson has scored in the last four games have been the most he has ever scored during a four game stretch in his career. In addition, his 23 defensive rebounds during that time also ties his career high for a four game stretch.
On a team that seemingly has been unable to find its shot from behind the arc all season, Johnson has stepped up the face of a need, shooting 42-percent from beyond the arc during the past four games.
Along with all of the offensive numbers in which Johnson has been accumulating, the most underappreciated facet of his game has continued to flourish. Defensively, Johnson had two steals against both Minnesota and Penn State, and against Northwestern, he shut down the Wildcats leading scorer Scottie Lindsey. Johnson held Lindsey to an abysmal one-for-15 from the field with four turnovers.
Johnson is playing the best basketball of his career and it is coming at the most important time in his career.
The questions surrounding him in the past have seemingly always been mental. Whether it be this fear of him never reaching his full potential or this everlasting concern for Johnson’s ability to become a leader, Johnson’s mental make-up has always been at the forefront. Now, it appears as if a new found level of confidence and support has pushed those questions to the side.
“It’s the guys around me, the coaching staff, my teammates,” Johnson said after Indiana’s victory over Northwestern. “They never lost faith or confidence in my ability to shoot the ball, so I give all the thanks to them.”
The questions of mentality reached their peak last year when Johnson heard his greatest criticism come from then Indiana head coach Tom Crean. When talking to legendary Indiana Broadcaster Don Fischer last February, Tom Crean found himself in a very odd position. With the season practically in shambles, Crean found himself defending former player Thomas Bryant. In doing so, Crean deflected blame to James Blackmon Jr. and Johnson.
“Thomas is really trying to lead the team, and he’s not getting a lot of help. He’s not getting a lot of help at all,” Crean said. “I’m not going to blame Thomas. He’s wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, didn’t have a lot of fun playing today, which is not good. But he’s trying to make up for a group of juniors that just really have no ability right now to see past themselves when it comes to what it takes for us to be successful as a team, when it comes to communication.”
No matter how volatile things may have become last season, Crean’s sentiments still had to be taken seriously. It’s ever so rare to hear a coach be that blatantly critical of his or her own players, and in that moment Crean single-handedly attempted to drain all hope that one could have for Johnson.
Now, Crean’s sentiments only make Johnson’s current play more surreal.
Even to open the season, he struggled to find a comfort level. Johnson simply furthered Crean’s ideas by shooting poorly and looking deflected in the process. Now, when his team needs him to step up, it seems like everything is finally clicking. Johnson has found himself among the complex world of College Basketball and Indiana can’t afford to let him lose that.
Robert Johnson's mentality has changed recently and it's showing on the court. Hear about his improved play plus everything else Indiana basketball related on The Hoosier Network #iubb podcast.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) January 18, 2018
The last four games can’t be an aberration. Indiana’s postseason hopes still remain barely intact, with the team needing to pick up a signature win against either Purdue, Ohio State or Michigan State. Even if tournament play isn’t the cards, it still remains vital that Archie Miller continues to build momentum around this program moving forward.
With Indiana’s inability to shoot the ball all season, and an uncertain injury to Morgan, Johnson has to remain at this elite for the remainder of the season. If he does, then he will leave a remarkably unique legacy at Indiana.
Johnson currently sits at 32nd all-time in scoring in Indiana Basketball history with 1,244 points. If Robert Johnson continues his current output, he could find himself in the top-20 by season’s end, leaving the program on a positive note at a pivital time.