March 7, 2020. It was 574 days ago when Indiana men’s basketball last played in front of an actual home crowd — a regular season finale loss to Wisconsin.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic started, Hoosier fans didn’t know when they’d be able to cheer their basketball teams on in-person again.
Finally, at Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday afternoon, fans returned to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Instead of fan cardboard cutouts, staff at the stadium left the 17,222 seats empty before the event — waiting for fans to fill them.
The event was canceled in 2020. When Indiana last walked out to address its fans ahead of a season, Archie Miller was the head coach.
After plenty of off-season hype, the new man at the helm, Mike Woodson, was publicly revealed in front of Hoosier Nation. Following the team’s introductions, Woodson addressed the fans for the first time as head coach.
“It feels good to be home,” Woodson said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but, with your support, we will get back on top.”
Emotions clearly got the better of Former Indiana All-American and two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas when he took to the court after Woodson’s speech to address Hoosier Nation. He teared up a bit reminiscing about the 1979-80 season, when he and Woodson were teammates but failed to bring home a national championship.
Thomas talked about his time as a player and made sure those currently on the roster understood how important it is to come back and graduate from IU, even if they leave as players early. He said he trusts in Woodson and believes he will bring success back to the program.
“He’s going to lay a foundation again,” Thomas said. “He’s going to talk about getting an education and he’s going to talk about winning.”
Thomas understood exactly how much Hoosier fans longed for the return of Indiana basketball and a packed Assembly Hall. Before walking off, Thomas told fans they will witness the program rise again to the heights it was once so used to.
“There is no better fanbase in the history of college basketball than Hoosier Nation,” Thomas said. “You have the responsibility to show up every single day.”
The 3-point shooting contest, skills competition and dunk contest came shortly after. For the 3-point contest and the skills competition, the men’s team paired up with players from the women’s team.
Redshirt junior guard Parker Stewart impressed in the 3-point contest and caught fire at the right time, securing the title for himself and senior guard Grace Berger over the pair of senior guards Xavier Johnson and Ali Patberg.
In the skills competition, senior guard Rob Phinisee and Johnson put on a show for the fans, using the layup portion of the event as an excuse to put their dunking abilities on display.
Phinisee and junior forward Mackenzie Holmes posted the fastest time of the four teams, ultimately defeating the duo of Johnson and sophomore forward Kiandra Brown in the final round to take home the title.
All-American junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis was the star of the dunk contest. To nobody’s surprise, he received the loudest ovation when they were introduced.
He gave the judges — Thomas, IU President Pamela Whitten and Wayne Mitchell Radford, the son of former Indiana player Wayne Radford — no choice but to crown him champion after his final-round attempt. To close it out, Jackson-Davis ran from half court before jumping in front of the free-throw line, slamming the ball through the net.
Freshman guard Tamar Bates, one of several newcomers to the team, had his first glimpse of what playing in front of an energized Indiana basketball fan base will feel like.
“All I’ve been trying to do is imagine what it would look like and sound like,” Bates said. “I was excited to see more faces and get back to how it usually was.”
The final scheduled event was a scrimmage between the men’s players but was canceled after the team ran some drills and got loose for several minutes. Woodson told the crowd the team was “short-handed” and thanked them for their support before sending them home.
“See you November ninth,” Woodson said.
Sophomore guard Khristian Lander, Northwestern transfer and senior forward Miller Kopp, sophomore guard Trey Galloway and senior center Michael Durr didn’t participate in any of the Hoosier Hysteria activities. An Indiana spokesperson said scholarship players who didn’t take part in the competitions and drills were held out for precautionary reasons.
Lander was seen with a walking boot on his left foot.
Indiana will have over a month to prepare for its season opener against Eastern Michigan University on Nov. 9 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.