No James Blackmon Jr. No Robert Johnson. No Troy Williams for much of the second half. IU was just fine.
The Hoosiers stuck to their game and played to their depth and ran away with a road win Thursday at Illinois.
Illinois opened strong. This is the kind of game the Fighting Illini goes all out for. It had a good game plan and had IU looking ugly for much of the first half, leading 14-4. But that start masked the difference between these two teams for only so long.
IU is simply good. It’s really good.
It’s good enough that, on the road against a Big Ten opponent, it was able to rest players with no second thoughts.
Sophomore guard Robert Johnson sprained his left ankle Saturday against Purdue. He was labeled as a game-time decision. Regardless of how close the decision really was, IU was able to hold Johnson out and ensure he's fully healthy for next week.
Then, junior forward Troy Williams bruised his thigh and exited the game at the 16:48 mark in the second half. He was evaluated by trainers and eventually told IU Coach Tom Crean he was ready to go.
But Crean had no reason to rush him back in. IU was on a run and had no need to push Williams.
So when one adds in the absence of sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. since December 2015, the Hoosiers spent a solid portion of the second half Sunday without three players who were starters as of two months ago. IU was still able to cruise to a 27-point victory.
Crean said the issue with losing Johnson was less about his offense and more about people stepping up for the defense he provides. IU did just that, holding Illinois to 47 points.
These columns have been becoming more and more positive as of late. That’s because there have been so few reasons for negativity.
Williams has been playing good basketball. The Hoosiers are shooting the ball well. IU has plenty of young players developing each game and providing impressive depth off the bench.
Crean noted two different moments Sunday that kind of caught him.
One was when he noticed that, at one point, IU had four players of 6-foot-7 or taller on the floor. The other was when he realized three freshmen were playing at once.
These moments showed the growth of the team as the season continues. There is size that is versatile. There is youth that is becoming trustworthy.
Things are simply going well. The Hoosiers are in control of the Big Ten with two games to go. Granted, those two games, against Iowa and Maryland, are difficult tests.
But IU has proven wrong those of us who thought the sky was falling after struggles in Maui and a blowout road loss at Duke. I wrote Dec. 2, 2015, after the Duke loss that the ceiling for IU was only so high.
I was flat-out wrong.