My two cents: Indiana’s biggest challenges are usually not too nice for Mike Woodson

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It’s the off-season, so all basketball activity in Indiana – at least with the current roster – happens in secret behind closed doors. The first real game of the Mike Woodson era is still nearly four months away, but the basketball talk never stops.

It never, never stops.

Over the weekend, ESPN’s Jeff Borzello broken down the biggest challenges for each of the 57 new coaches in college basketball, including 13 from the Power 6 conferences. There have been changes in high profile places like North Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as places like Iowa State, Minnesota, Penn State, and Boston College.

There was a lot of movement last year, especially considering it was a COVID-19 year and Indiana’s hiring of Mike Woodson to replace Archie Miller was a big deal.

Here’s what Borzello said about the biggest challenge facing Woodson, a former Indiana star who has coached in the NBA for the past 30 years after a successful professional career.

  • “Biggest challenge: Return Indiana to blueblood status. It’s arguably the biggest challenge on this list, and maybe it’s impossible. But the last time Woodson was involved in college basketball was in 1980, when he retired as a Hoosier amid Bob Knight’s glory years. The IU won one title in 1976, another in 1981 and a third in 1987. Back in Bloomington, Woodson takes over a program that hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 2016 and has been behind the Sweet 16 once since 1993. Indiana isn’t considered one of the truly elite programs in college basketball right now, either on the court or on the recruiting path. ”
  • Early return: Woodson did an impressive job in its first year creating a roster competitive enough for an NCAA tournament application. Armaan Franklin, Al Durham, Joey Brunk and Jerome Hunter left via the transfer portal, but Xavier Johnson (Pittsburgh), Miller Kopp (northwest) and Michael Durr (South Florida) came in the opposite direction. Indiana also ended up in Tamar Bates’ top 25 seniors and had ESPN 100 juniors Kyle Filipowski and Jalen Hood-Schifino on campus.

Let’s break down some of his points and give them a better context.

Back to blueblood status?

This is every Indiana fan’s dream, isn’t it? Back to the glory days when national title hopes accompany every season. Borzello is right that this is possibly the biggest challenge on his list as Indiana is off the radar when it comes to blueblood programs.

It’s ridiculous that it’s now been six years since Indiana played in the NCAA tournament at all, but it’s even sadder to me that Indiana has only won one game in the second week of the tournament since 1993. That’s 31 years now, a whole generation of basketball fans, and the only tournament run was in 2002, when the Hoosiers lost the national final to Maryland.

Sure, there were some fun games and some fun tracks along the way, especially, at least for me, in 2012-13 when Indiana was the nation’s No. 1 for a while and had a list of beloved heroes like Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Yogi Ferrell and Christian Watford.

But that should happen every year if you’re blue blood, and as much as it pains me to say it, this just isn’t Indiana anymore.

But what encourages me is that I believe the return of Woodson and Dane Fife was a signal that it is still important to do it the Indiana way and that they can turn this program around. My optimism is high enough that I think Indiana will win a game earlier than most expect in week two of the NCAA tournament.

Become a factor in recruiting again

Woodson and his staff have been at full capacity since he was hired in late March. Hiring Fife, a former Hoosier who was a great recruiter for Tom Izzo in Michigan State, was a big deal. So Kenya Hunter was retained and Yasir Rosemond was added to the staff. All of them have great recruiting résumés.

Getting Tamar Bates this spring was great. The former Texas Commit is a top 25 player in the country and a five-star recruit. It won’t surprise me in the least if he becomes Indiana’s best player behind Trayce Jackson-Davis next season, even as a newcomer.

Indiana is spot on with several other top players in the 2022 class as well. You’ve been working hard on the recruiting trail all summer – including Woodson, who is new to all of this.

Blueblood-level recruiting isn’t happening overnight either, but the plan seems solid and the work ethic is there, no question about it. This may take a little more patience, but the Hoosiers are definitely headed in the right direction.

Immediate improvement with transfer portal

Where the recruiting game has really changed is the transfer portal, where players can now switch without sitting out, and there has been more movement than ever this year.

Indiana did a good job this year attracting talent. They lost lads too, of course, but I think this squad change must be seen as an improvement for the Hoosiers as the new lads fill huge gaps. Woodson will use the portal each year to meet demand. I think that’s a given.

Borzello has also ranked the top 100 transfers this offseason, the busiest year ever with players not having to miss a year. There are, of course, many Indiana references, both coming and going. Here are the Indiana connections on his list:

  • No. 44 – Indianas Armaan Franklin Transfers to Virginia
  • # 48 – Pittsburghs Xavier Johnson Transfers to Indiana
  • No. 76 – Indianas Al Durham Transfers to Providence
  • No. 82 – Tennessee Martins Parker Stewart Transfers to Indiana

I think Borzello really missed the boat on the Miller-Kopp transfer from Northwestern to Indiana. I think that’s huge because he’s finally giving Indiana a striker who can put down perimeter shots. That has been a big problem over the past few years with guys like Justin Smith, who was no good at three and up, and Jerome Hunter, who was wildly inconsistent and, it turned out, unreliable. Kopp’s arrival changes how Indiana can attack from that point. I think he’s going to have a big year for Indiana.

Meeting those needs is a big deal. Joining Pitt’s Xavier Johnson instantly makes him the best point guard in Indiana’s roster, and leftovers Rob Phinisee and Khristian Lander need to step up their games to fight for game time. (Full disclosure, I think both will do just that.)

The biggest for me, and another transfer Borzello overlooked, is the arrival of the 7-foot Michael Durr center from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Sure, he wasn’t the best player on the portal but he has talent and absolutely fills a void on this Indiana roster.

Last year Trayce Jackson-Davis had to spend too much time guarding all the big men in the Big Ten, giving up most of the inches and pounds every night. He can effectively attack all of these guys on the offensive, but guarding them for 40 minutes frankly drained him.

Durr’s arrival means he’s taking a lot of that load off Jackson-Davis’ record, which will make him a lot more effective. For the first time in years, Indiana truly has a complete list of depth on every position.

Indiana can play big or play small this year. With a more professional look on the offensive, all the parts are now in place to be competitive on the offensive, something we haven’t seen in a long time.

The hunt for blue blood status may take a while, but we’re at least moving in the right direction.

In the end.

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