PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Prior to IU’s Big Ten opener at Rutgers, it was announced that sophomore guard and second-leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. would not play due to a knee injury.
Meanwhile, freshman center Thomas Bryant fouled out with 8:24 remaining in the game, picking up five fouls in just six minutes.
The absences of Blackmon Jr. and Bryant altered IU Coach Tom Crean’s rotation, as Crean started junior forward Collin Hartman in place of Blackmon and relied heavily upon senior forward Max Bielfeldt.
The latter move proved to be the difference Wednesday afternoon, as Bielfeldt scored 18 points and corralled 14 rebounds in IU’s 79-72 win against Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey.
“I was impressed when you consider the fact that Thomas got into foul trouble, Rob couldn’t score and Nick had three points,” Crean said. “To me, he did an excellent job and stayed after it. The rebounding, the deflections, the leadership, all of those things are more exciting than points.”
Rutgers (6-8, 0-1) took its first lead of the game with 15:59 to play in the second half after freshman guard Corey Sanders hit a 3-pointer for the Scarlet Knights. IU responded with a 14-2 run over the next five minutes to take a 57-46 lead and control the game.
Crean said defense during IU’s run. “It was good movement and it was good decisions. I’m sure our turnovers were a little lower during that run. We did not play a great game, but we found a way to win.”
The Hoosiers (11-3, 1-0) turned the ball over a season-high 23 times, as junior forward Troy Williams and senior guard Yogi Ferrell combined for 13 turnovers. IU led by as many as 12 points in the first half, but five Hoosier turnovers in the final 2:11 of the first half allowed Rutgers to spark a 9-0 run and tie the game at halftime.
“It was not following through,” Bielfeldt said of IU’s turnovers. “We can fix that, it’s just kind of annoying sometimes, guys try to do too much. It’s experience, we’ll figure that out. It’s just the game of basketball, it happens, you just have to play though it.”
Hartman scored all nine of his points in the first half on 3-pointers, while Bielfeldt helped the Hoosiers through rough stretches with 10 points in the opening 20 minutes. The 6-foot-8 forward shot 8-of-14 from the floor in 26 minutes of play.
“It was part of the game plan,” Bielfeldt said. “When Thomas goes down, I have to be ready to go. Fortunately, I found some areas where I was effective tonight. I had a good year here last year, maybe it’s the lighting or the rims.”
Blackmon Jr.’s knee injury is still in the evaluation stage, as Crean said postgame. The injury occurred during a non-contact drill in Monday’s practice. The 6-foot-4 guard averages 15.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for the Hoosiers.
“We really missed him,” Bielfeldt said. "He brings leadership and is a heck of a player, it’s tough being out there without him. But, next man up. We had guys like Ryan (Burton) and OG (Anunoby) coming off the bench and playing great.”
Burton hit two key 3-pointers during big stretches Wednesday, while Anunoby finished with eight points, seven rebounds and zero turnovers in 15 minutes. Ferrell, meanwhile, led the team with 20 points and seven assists despite shooting just 6-of-14 from the floor and 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
IU will stay on the road to continue Big Ten play Saturday, as the Hoosiers will travel to Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers.
"With James, it's not just the shots he makes and the percentage that he has," Crean said. "He makes the game easier for everyone else because you can never not account for James."
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