Indiana senior Robert Johnson plays vital role now and in the future of Hoosier program

Indiana's Robert Johnson, left, and Penn State's Jamari Wheeler eye a loose ball during the first half of a game earlier this season in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)

In November, Indiana University men’s basketball coach Archie Miller signed four high school prospects with the anticipation that Damezi Anderson, Jake Forrester, Jerome Hunter and Rob Phinisee would each play a vital role in helping the Hoosier program achieve great things in the future. But as it turns out, any accomplishment that occurs down the road with Miller’s program, current Indiana senior Robert Johnson will have played an important role, as well, according to the coach.

“He’ll go down as one of the guys,” Miller said Thursday of Johnson, “hopefully; as we build season upon season that you look back on and say he gave us a chance.”

Johnson will take to the Assembly Hall court for the final time tonight, as Indiana (16-13, 9-8 Big Ten) will host No. 15 Ohio State (23-7, 14-3) at 8 p.m. (FS1) for its regular season home finale.

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Johnson came to Bloomington four seasons ago and was a key cog in the Hoosier program from day one.

He has started 115 games in his career and helped Indiana to a couple of NCAA Tournaments and the 2016 Big Ten championship. But the first-year coach explained that his most significant contribution may have been this season and didn’t have anything to do with putting the ball through the basket (though he’s done that plenty this year).

“I probably can’t put it into words just how much he’s given to our staff,” Miller said. “It hasn’t been just one day or one week, it has been literally the first second we arrived on campus until today. He has been all in.”

Accepting a new coach for the final 12 months of your collegiate career isn’t easy and it often isn’t as seamless as Johnson and his fellow seniors (Collin Hartman, Josh Newkirk, Tim Priller, and Freddie McSwain Jr.) made it appear to be throughout this season.

“(Johnson) has worked extremely hard, not only individually on his own game,” Miller explained, “but he has really just done an amazing job of giving everything he has to our process.

“Your seniors can go a lot of different ways when there is change, especially when there are a lot of ups and downs in a season.”

With Johnson, he played a significant role this season in helping Indiana have an “up” answer to every “down” moment.

The Hoosiers opened the season with a staggering home blowout loss to what has become a mediocre Indiana State squad, but the next game, an Indiana win; Johnson hit 5 of 8 shots against Howard and finished with 14 points in 31 minutes.

After the second mind-blowing home rout, this time to Fort Wayne in late December, Johnson came back with a 5 of 11 night for 12 points in beating Tennessee Tech.

The Hoosiers’ worst Big Ten performance this season, from an effort and execution standpoint was a loss at Wisconsin, but Johnson helped his team recover quickly by hitting 10 of 21 shots in a pounding of and at Minnesota, as he totaled 28 points.

The latest example of leading by productive example came in late January after Indiana got annihilated at Michigan State.

Johnson connected for 5 of 12 shots in a home win over Maryland in the next game.

His best performance, however, came in a recent come-from-behind win at Iowa, in which he tied a program record by sinking nine 3-pointers and scoring a career-best 29 points.

“To me,” Miller said, “He is as ready right now as he was at the start of the season when there is a lot of excitement. Regardless of how this season finishes up, he individually from a statistical standpoint, I don’t know if guys will look at it this way, but he’s meant (a lot) to the program in terms of giving us an opportunity to build, to compete and to be able to get better all season long.”

Like Miller, Hartman finds as much value in Johnson in terms of attitude as he ever has in scoring points.

The two room together on road trips and have developed “a very unique and special bond,” according the Hartman, which has allowed both athletes to successfully handle adversity throughout their careers.

“We always have just great conversations about, not just basketball, but life, and who you want to be as a man and where you put your priorities,” Hartman said. “So I really commend him for that, and I thank him for being that person that we can have that connection to have those real talks with.”

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