This is the Robert Johnson we have expected all season, the guy who makes clutch shots, the guy who makes a difference and not a mess.
The Indiana junior guard’s inconsistency reflects a Hoosier season gone wrong, with this thought:
If the Hoosiers (17-14) ever figure it out, as they did for much of Saturday’s win 96-92 over Ohio State, maybe they can make a Big Ten tourney run and make March acceptable rather than miserable.
Against the equally disappointing Buckeyes, Johnson was dominant — 26 points (one less than his career high) while making 5-of-8 three-pointers. He added six rebounds, six assists and no turnovers. He was a big reason why IU bolted to an 11-0 lead, and built first-half advantages as large as 18 points, creating momentum the Hoosiers seemed incapable of blowing.
“Seemed” is the key word.
Anyway, this was huge given Johnson had been just 7-for-42 beyond the arc in his previous eight games, way off what you’d expect from a guy who should be one of the Big Ten’s best perimeter shooters.
His explanation — “My teammates did a good job of finding me.”
So there you go.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who has seen this far too often in his own forgettable 17-14 season, was a bit more cynical.
"We're a get-well card for guys," he said. "You're struggling? Play Ohio State and get out of your slump just like that. It's been that way all season.
“(Johnson) was tremendous."
For this Indiana coach Tom Crean could give thanks.
"You could say that he was due, and you'd be right," he said. "It's just an anomaly that he has not played as well with his shooting, and it's heartbreaking sometimes when he's missing shots because outside of James Blackmon and Rob — and Josh Newkirk would be in this group, too — those three work so much extra on their shooting, almost to the point of, just relax."
It’s hard to relax when losing becomes an unwanted way of life (IU has lost eight of its last 11 games), when Hoosier Nation anger is only topped by Hoosier Nation apathy.
Missing out on the NCAA tourney for the second time in four seasons — barring a Big Ten tourney miracle — is not close to being good enough.
Anyway, Indiana was almost ridiculously good offensively to start Saturday's game, hitting 13 of its first 15 shots, and committing just one turnover in the first eight minutes.
Repeat — one turnover in eight minutes.
The Hoosiers’ 96 points were the most Ohio State has ever allowed at Value City Arena, topping the 84 that has happened three times.
Of course, this being Indiana, it nearly blew it. Ohio State roared back to take a brief second-half lead, and had a chance in the final minute until Blackmon clinched it with a couple of free throws (giving him 22 points for the game).
For those who love defense, look elsewhere. Indiana gave up at least 90 points for the fifth time this season.
IU did what it could to avoid the embarrassment of having to open Big Ten tourney play on Wednesday, which is reserved for the conference’s four worst teams. Now, it needs Nebraska to lose to visiting Michigan Sunday night. If that happens, the Hoosiers will get the No. 10 seed and play Thursday night in Washington D.C. against Michigan or Iowa. If Nebraska wins, IU would be the No. 11 seed and open Wednesday night against Rutgers.
The fact the Hoosiers are even in this position is a big blow given they continue to consider themselves elite, even if the results of the last generate refutes it.
They have spent the last couple of months as the kings of under-achievement. Yes, injuries to Collin Hartman and OG Anunoby robbed them of title potential, and they have significant youth, but they had more than enough talent to finish among a weak Big Ten’s top-five teams, make the NCAA tourney and win a game, maybe even two.
But that would require a level of leadership, execution, toughness and focus this group lacks.
Still, for those who seek optimism in the wake of Saturday’s win, what can IU do to sustain the good moments?
“We have to do better inside the game,” Crean said. “So many areas are correctable. At times we ask guys to play roles they’re not quite ready for. At the same time, we could be better inside of that.
I don’t know if it’s a matter of simplify. I can point on film that some of our scorers are trying to make plays when they have one man to beat.
“A great example is James and his first turnover (against Northwestern). James has (Wildcats guard) Bryant McIntosh going down hill. Go to the basket. At the worst, we’ll miss a layup and De’Ron will follow it up. The best thing is we get two points, or three points or 2 free throws because there is no one to else beat.
“Our rule is one man to beat, beat him. Two men to beat, kick it. When you drive into the traffic where the defense is and then try to pass to teammate …
“James made a very unselfish play to try to pass to Rob (the pass got picked off), but the best play was to drive to the basket.
“We try to make sure they have the recognition and vision they have to have. We hope we get things like that. We’re just trying to do the best job with what we have. We’ve got to get better with our decision making.”
Under one-and-done pressure, maybe the Hoosiers can finally figure it out.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at email@example.com.