Is IU better after injury?

Tom Crean won’t say it.

You can prod and poke, but there is no way he is going to confirm one of the prime reasons that his Hoosiers are better.

Don’t blame him. Loyalty to an injured player is a virtue.

So, that leaves it to us.

Indiana is better without James Blackmon Jr. on the floor.

Harsh? Perhaps.

The sole reason? Certainly not.

But it’s tough to argue against the facts.

The Hoosiers’ ascension to the top of the Big Ten and as a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat corresponds to Blackmon’s departure from the lineup.

Indiana is 7-0 since a knee injury sent IU’s second leading scorer to surgery and then to the bench. The Hoosiers face their biggest test of the conference season tonight at Wisconsin, which Indiana beat 59-58 at home earlier this month.

When it comes to any notion that Indiana is somehow better without Blackmon, Crean wants to put a stop to that, noting, “We’ve had to reconfigure some things more than most people would realize without him in there,” he told the Indiana Daily Student.

“I’ve heard that from some others,” Crean said. “James Blackmon put 21 on Illinois last year. He put 24 on Minnesota. We’re taking 16 points, 26 minutes, high-level shooting out of our lineup. We’re trying to make up for that. … When you take a really good player out of the lineup that’s capable of so much, you’re going to feel the effects of that.”

There’s no doubt that Blackmon is an exceptional player, a versatile scorer and effective rebounder as a 6-foot-4 guard. Without him, though, IU is a different team, dare we say better. The Hoosiers’ two glaring deficiencies — ball movement and defense — are suddenly pluses. That transformation has turned IU into the Big Ten frontrunner.

“We knew with the absence of James … we were going to have to move without the ball a lot more,” Crean said. “We’re seeing different defenses from people, and we just have to make sure we’re reading where the cuts are and playing with our heads up.”

In the past two games, IU players have a combined 48 assists.

They’re realizing the importance of moving without the ball as well as ball movement, junior forward Collin Hartman told the IDS. That’s led to more open shots on offense — and a 50-percent 3-point percentage during the past two games.

Hartman and Rob Johnson have earned more playing time in Blackmon’s absence, with Hartman taking that starting spot. Against Northwestern, the junior forward scored eight of the Hoosiers’ first 13 points.

In IU’s seven conference wins, opponents have been held below 46 percent shooting, and only one has cracked 70 points.

All this is not a knock on Blackmon’s game. Not at all. But he is another scorer on a team that already has plenty of that. It is recognition that there is a difference between a collection of great players and a great team.

On the offensive end, Blackmon needs the ball in his hand a fair amount of the time. On the defensive end, he is a substantial liability. “He couldn’t guard a chair,” TV commentator Dan Dakich tweeted during one especially ineffective stretch.

With this particular IU group, the combination was not ideal. Point guard Yogi Ferrell, forward Troy Williams and center Thomas Bryant all need their share of touches on offense. Scoring isn’t a problem.

What the Hoosiers lacked on the floor are “glue guys” to effectively do the little things that make the team better. Hartman and Johnson do that, as do several younger players ready to step up.

“What it’s done is O.G. (Anunoby) was that much more ready to play and is getting more minutes,” Crean said. “Juwan Morgan was starting to get healthy, and Thomas Bryant was starting to get better. They’re getting more reps in practice.”

Blackmon’s knee injury is not something to wish on anyone. Don’t get me wrong there. And he is an exceptional talent, perhaps even NBA-worthy when his game fully develops.

With this Hoosier team, which has adjusted and made up for his absence with an increased focus on team offense and defense, the results tell the story.

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.