When Mike Woodson returned to his alma mater to embark on his first college coaching journey, Indiana men’s basketball fans were torn on the hiring.
Initially, they rejoiced at the prospect of a former Hoosier, someone who understood the program, running the show. Once they thought about it more, though, doubt crept in.
Would Woodson’s NBA knowledge and experience translate smoothly to the NCAA, especially the Big Ten? Could he talk up the best recruits, get them to believe in his vision, and gradually restore the team’s fading reputation as a blue blood?
An optimism was forged among the faithful during the preseason as they saw the way Woodson carried himself and listened to his players speak about the team’s positivity and unity. Still, the anxiety wouldn’t go away.
Can you blame them? Decades of disappointment since the Bob Knight era and his disturbing exit have left a spoiled fanbase restless. All they’ve wanted since then (aside from a sixth national championship) is stability.
Through one season, Woodson has shown he can provide it.
Before he ever stepped foot in a high school player’s home, Woodson had to pick up the pieces from the prior season. His most vital task: to reel Indiana’s most important player, junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, back to college and away from exploring a professional career. Woodson’s straightforwardness was convincing enough to keep him home another year.
The Hoosiers quickly re-established their home-court advantage in the 2021-22 season, starting off 12-0 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall before finishing 14-4. They defeated two of the first three top-25 teams they faced, including an unforgettable upset that ended an embarrassing losing streak against Purdue.
Later, when all looked lost during a season-high five-game losing streak, Woodson didn’t flinch.
He suspended a handful of Indiana players for breaking team rules before a road game against Northwestern, an eventual loss. He made it clear that no player would be bigger than the team under his watch. While he received criticism for the result, his commitment to building a culture wouldn’t be bothered by outside noise.
The final stretch of the regular season was a disaster, but much of the Hoosiers’ poor play could be attributed to their depleted backcourt. Senior guard Rob Phinisee and sophomore guard Trey Galloway were out for an extended time with injuries.
What Woodson is capable of with a full squad is most evident in the first games where the two guards returned — the Big Ten Tournament. Indiana rallied late to defeat Michigan, stunned No. 1-seeded Illinois in the quarterfinal and was a Jordan Bohannon last-second heave away from a championship game appearance.
Both the team’s and fanbase’s expectation was to make the NCAA Tournament, and the Hoosiers’ late winning streak ended a six-year March Madness drought. Woodson still wasn’t content. The players weren’t either.
Belief in a serious run was widespread. Although the season ended against Saint Mary’s College in the First Round, Indiana made it out of the First Four with a thrilling win against the University of Wyoming.
It’s clear Woodson has grown comfortable with the NCAA system and is well-prepared for the future. Indiana’s incoming class of 2022 recruits is stacked with talent, including five-star guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, five-star power forward Malik Reneau, four-star power forward Kaleb Banks and three-star guard CJ Gunn.
Woodson overachieved expectations in his first season, bringing the program back to the national stage and ensuring that, with help from promising signees, it will remain there.
But that isn’t enough when you’re the face of Indiana men’s basketball. The honeymoon period is over, and the pressure is higher than ever to prove that this past season meant something in the big picture.