The realization that it is the beginning of the end has begun to hit senior guard Robert Johnson.
After three years and 87 career starts, he stands on the precipice of scoring 1,000 career points. His final season as a Hoosier begins Friday night against Indiana State, but he’s soaking in every single second.
“I try to take every moment in for what it is,” Johnson said. “I try not to take any moment for granted realizing that I am a senior. I’m definitely excited about this year.”
In the moments since Johnson walked off the floor in Atlanta following a first round National Invitation Tournament loss in March, a lot has changed for him and the IU program. The coach that recruited and helped him grow is gone, along with the system where he had so much success.
His backcourt partner — James Blackmon Jr. — departed for the NBA.
Johnson almost joined him. Entering the NBA Draft process, Johnson heard from many different scouts and front-office executives and decided to return to IU for one last opportunity.
The message he said he received was the scouts wanted to see him play point guard at a high level under new coach Archie Miller.
“They wanted to see how I will handle being one of the primary scorers this upcoming year,” Johnson said. “And I think, as far as Archie's system, with some of the things that we've already went over, I think it will help me as far as getting in the open court and handling the ball more and pick-and-roll.”
Following the announcement that he would come back for his senior season, Johnson dedicated himself to improving both his body and his game. Under Cliff Marshall, the new strength and conditioning coach, Johnson transformed his diet and body.
“I've never seen a guy as motivated physically to be where he's at right now,” Miller said. “He's probably the best-conditioned player that I've ever been around.”
Motivated to improve his overall game in the offseason, he is now tasked by Miller with a bigger role on both ends of the court. Miller said that he’s been impressed by the amount of talking he’s seen from Johnson, and he wants him to be more assertive.
“I think to keep him as aggressive as possible we want to keep things simple for him and let him be himself,” Miller said. “And I think simplifying things for him, so he can be the most aggressive Rob he can be is a good thing.”
That aggression had already been a work in progress. Shooting 174 more times last season than he did as a sophomore, Johnson increased his points per game total by about five points per game. But as the most experienced Hoosier on the roster, he will be asked to more of a leader.
“I think it’s just having an attack mentality with everything,” Johnson said. “Defensively, pressuring the ball, staying true to techniques. Offensively, just having the mindset of trying to create either for myself or a teammate every time I have the ball.”
When a team changes coaches, it tends to be a major adjustment for the players. The biggest difference between Miller and Tom Crean is the defensive schemes they employ. Miller was known for the strong defenses he cultivated at Dayton.
At the center of Miller’s first Hoosier defense will be Johnson, who has been a strong defender in his first three seasons. He knows he’s going to have to step into that role as an attacking perimeter defender.
“I think I’m going to have to be for the simple fact that I’ve been that in the past for my teams," Johnson said. “I’m going to have to be that even more going forward.”
His defense has improved over the course of his career, but it blossomed in his sophomore year as it was a critical piece to IU’s Big Ten Championship. Last season, Johnson led the Hoosiers with 29 steals.
Yet senior forward Collin Hartman said he believes there is another level to Johnson’s defensive prowess he can unlock.
“I think his biggest improvement is defensively, he really stepped up his game defensively and locking guys down,” Hartman said.
Miller’s first season will be Johnson’s last. That doesn’t mean he can’t go out with a bang, which is exactly what he said the seniors want to do this season.
“I just want to help do whatever it takes to win and try to lead and help guys, and make the game easier for everybody,” he said.
One final ride for Johnson.
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