Liberty will try to handle No. 6 Indiana, Blackmon

Indiana might have lost the best point guard in the Big 10 Conference to graduation in Yogi Ferrell, but if the season's first two games are any indication, it has regained perhaps the conference's most explosive scorer.

Back from a torn right ACL he suffered last December, 6-foot-4 junior guard James Blackmon Jr. has scored 26 and 23 points in wins over Kansas and UMass Lowell, respectively. Blackmon is canning 55.2 percent of his field goal tries, including an impressive 9-of-17 on 3-pointers.

What's more, Blackmon has enjoyed 20-point halves in both games. He victimized Kansas in the second half and extra period of a 103-99 overtime win at the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu, then picked up where he left off in the first half of Wednesday's 100-78 pounding of UMass Lowell with another 20 points.

So Blackmon, Jr. will be in the spotlight again Saturday night when the sixth-ranked Hoosiers continue the Indiana Classic at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., against Liberty.

“I think there's a confidence when they look at him,” Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said of Blackmon. “James is a lot more explosive than what he was. He's playing with more force. He's playing downhill more. He's covering more ground.

“I think the fact that he's moving the ball, that he's getting better defensively, that's a really good thing. To come back from an injury like that and to be a better athlete than he even was and be stronger like he is, that takes a little time for him to get used to.”

Blackmon's presence forces opponents to respect him from 25 feet and in, leading to more scoring opportunities for teammates like 6-10 center Thomas Bryant (14 points per game, 7.5 rebounds), 6-8 forward OG Anunoby (14 points, 5.5 rebounds) and 6-3 point guard Robert Johnson (13 points, 3.5 assists).

Indiana's offense has been clicking on nearly all cylinders so far, canning 50 percent of its field goal attempts and nearly 45 percent on 3-pointers (26-of-58). Its ability to either get to the rim or create open 3s can test any defense.

Liberty (1-1) will counter with a defense the Hoosiers have battled before — the “pack line” scheme created by Dick Bennett and still run by the likes of Wisconsin and Virginia. Fourth-year coach Ritchie McKay's squad held up-tempo VCU to 64 points in a five-point home loss Tuesday night.

“I thought everyone came in and battled, and you have to play well on the defensive end to have a chance,” McKay said to the Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance. “And we had a chance.”

The Flames are expected to challenge Winthrop for the Big South Conference title with the return of four starters, plus the arrival of 6-7 freshman forward Brock Gardner. McKay, in his second stint as Liberty coach, said Gardner is the best player he has landed there since signing Seth Curry in 2008.

Former Marquette guard John Dawson, a 6-2 senior, is the team's leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. Liberty's tallest starter is 6-5, 255-pound forward Myo Baxter-Bell, which will put it at a serious disadvantage inside against the likes of Bryant and Anunoby.

It is Indiana's second game in the Indiana Classic and Liberty's first. The Flames will host UMass Lowell, Mississippi Valley State and Central Penn in their other games in the event. The Hoosiers visit Fort Wayne and host Mississippi Valley State next week to finish their games in the event.