Indiana Daily Student

Indiana men’s basketball ready for highly-anticipated first season under Mike Woodson

<p>The IU men&#x27;s basketball team huddles Jan. 14, 2021, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Indiana begins the 2021 season at 6 p.m. Nov. 9 at home against Eastern Michigan.</p>

The IU men's basketball team huddles Jan. 14, 2021, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Indiana begins the 2021 season at 6 p.m. Nov. 9 at home against Eastern Michigan.

It’s already November, which means Indiana men’s basketball will soon play real, meaningful games again. It seems like just the other day fans were packed into Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for Hoosier Hysteria, getting their first looks at what this team can be capable of through skills competitions and holding in emotions during Isiah Thomas’ speech about his own time as an Indiana player, but that took place Oct. 2, more than a month ago. 

Oh, how the time flies in anticipation of the first season with Indiana fans allowed back in Assembly Hall since the hiatus caused by COVID-19. The fall months of preseason and secret scrimmages will be a memory of the past, and Indiana’s exciting group of players — full of returnees and newcomers — will finally be on display under the lights, learning how to mesh together in hopes of righting the wrongs of recent years.

Related: Big Ten Media Days: Upperclassmen prepared to lead Indiana men’s basketball by example

This historic program, which has suffered through the ups-and-downs of a five-year drought without a March Madness appearance, has been given a fresh start. Mike Woodson came back to coach at his alma mater, and has received blessings from former teammate Thomas and legendary former coach Bob Knight during a preseason practice session. 

Here’s what to expect before Indiana’s 2021-22 season gets underway Nov. 9 against Eastern Michigan University:

The feeling is mutual, Hoosier fans

All-American junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis headlines a group of Indiana players who can’t contain their excitement about getting the season underway.

It was Jackson-Davis’ decision to return for a third year, rather than taking his talents to the NBA, that sparked a chain-reaction of players wanting to come play for Indiana. 

However, none of it would’ve been possible without some convincing on the part of Woodson, whose tough love toward his players seems to be unlocking their potential. His connection with them from day one has already brought out their true personalities -- as seen from their demeanors and words at Big Ten Media Days -- and the best versions of themselves on the court should follow.

Woodson’s prevailing message to his upperclassmen — the likes of Jackson-Davis, senior guard Rob Phinisee and senior forward Race Thompson — has been blunt: don’t be afraid to shoot the ball more. He’s entrusted these three with leadership responsibilities, hoping their newfound confidence will rub off on the rest of the role players.

Five newcomers — two freshmen and three transfers — were convinced by Woodson to play for the Hoosiers since he took control of the team, and they will have plenty to say in how this season plays out. Junior forward Miller Kopp, senior guard Xavier Johnson and senior center Michael Durr all decided to transfer from their respective schools and bought into Woodson’s plan to bring Indiana back to the top.

Kopp, a Northwestern transfer, brings two crucial aspects to his game: a reliable jumpshot and a relentless desire to improve. He’s already made himself at home, barking on the sidelines in preseason games and posting TikToks with his teammates. 

Everyone’s helping each other become better, and Indiana men’s basketball is restoring its family values under Woodson.

Big Ten isn’t getting easier, what are expectations?

A national championship isn’t going to come overnight. 

Indiana will need the time to become comfortable and familiar with Woodson’s new system before a sixth banner can be hung in Assembly Hall, 

Woodson himself has refused to make any drastic claims or set unrealistic expectations in his first season coaching Indiana. In an adjustment period such as this, any type of success will serve as a good building block for the future of Woodson’s tenure. He’s coached in the NBA for decades, but his first go-round in college will surely be a learning experience, especially in a difficult conference he knew all too well while playing for Indiana.

Related: ‘It’s good to be back’: Indiana men’s basketball job a ‘no-brainer’ for new coach Woodson

The Big Ten boasts five teams — Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State and Maryland — in the Associated Press’ preseason top 25 poll. Despite the fact Indiana received the second-most votes outside the top 25 after Michigan State, the teams mentioned have created a sizable gap in recent years that will be tricky for Indiana to close. 

To name a few, Michigan sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, Illinois junior center Kofi Cockburn, and the Purdue duo of sophomore guard Jaden Ivey and senior forward Trevion Williams will all be returning to their respective teams. 

All the teams who made the NCAA Tournament come into this season with their own hunger to improve on their disappointing first and second-round exits — aside from Michigan’s Elite Eight appearance. Indiana’s sweep over BC Mega in its preseason exhibition games was encouraging, but its usual, grueling Big Ten schedule will be the ultimate test of Indiana’s will despite the talented players it added over the summer.

Before the bulk of conference play begins, though, Indiana will face nonconference opponents in 11 of its first 13 games — most notably Syracuse University on Nov. 30 and the University of Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 18. Woodson has spoken at length about what he wants his team to look like, and the first half of the schedule will shed some light on Indiana’s true identity.

No matter how successful the Hoosiers are in the grand scheme of things, one thing is certain: they’ll be entertaining and dynamic on offense again with the pieces they’ve surrounded their stars with, taking part in some unforgettable games.

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