Indiana men’s basketball isn’t focusing on the hype and the spotlight that comes with being a preseason favorite in the Big Ten, but it isn’t shying away from it either.
When Indiana tips off its season Nov. 7 against Moorehead State, it will be mired in optimism surrounding the program, a level of which hasn’t been seen in years in Bloomington.
At an institution where basketball carries so much weight, the Hoosiers returned to the NCAA Tournament in head coach Mike Woodson’s first year after a five-year hiatus. With nearly all its core returning from last season, they’re an easy favorite to challenge for the Big Ten title.
“Expectations are always going to be high,” Woodson said at Indiana’s basketball media day Thursday. “When I came in here and took the job, expectations were high. This program is built that way, and it should be that way. It's what it is, man. I'm not going to run from it, and I'm not going to let my players run from it.”
Woodson’s goal for his time at Indiana is clear, and his players have bought in.
"I came back here to win Big Ten titles and national titles,” Woodson said. “That's all I want."
Woodson knows the expectations that come alongside the Indiana name and the pressure they bring. In Woodson’s senior year, 1980, the Hoosiers entered the preseason ranked No. 1, a year after he led the team to a National Invitation Tournament title. That year, Indiana bottomed out in the Sweet Sixteen with a loss to Purdue.
“Rankings are what they are. You've still got to play the game, my man,” Woodson said. “That's what's important. It's going to be my job to get this team to play at a level every night and put them in a position to win every time they step out on the floor.”
Outside of Woodson, perhaps no one better understands the pressure and significance of a good Indiana basketball team than sophomore guard Anthony Leal.
Leal, who grew up in Bloomington cheering for Indiana, was still in middle school the last time Indiana won a conference title in 2016. He wasn’t even a year old when the Hoosiers made their last run to the Final Four, a national championship defeat to Maryland in 2002.
“We’ve definitely got a lot of potential, but it’s going to come down to whether or not we can gel together and play as hard as we can,” Leal said. “Every time we’re out there we just take every day, one day at a time, just keep getting better and stay competitive.”
Leal played in limited minutes last season, and while he did earn two starts, he only averaged 1.9 points per game. Over the offseason, Leal said he worked just as hard on the game’s mental aspect as the physical one.
Leal said he’s matured a lot heading into his third year, and the experience he’s gained will help steady himself on the court. Still, there are days when staying steady mentally isn’t as easy.
“I feel like everybody does (have bad days), but at the same time I’m at home and my family’s nearby,” Leal said. “It’s definitely up and down, but I always remind myself I used to dream about wearing this jersey and now I get to wear it.”
That jersey is regaining the notoriety that goes with it this year as teams start to target Indiana as the Big Ten favorite. Although no Coaches’ Poll or AP Polls have been released yet, most predictions, like 247Sports, have Indiana No. 1 in the Big Ten.
Race Thompson, the senior forward now entering his sixth year with the program, has been one of Indiana’s leaders in setting a tone around the program ahead of this season. With everyone looking to topple the Hoosiers this year, Thompson is making sure they’re focused on the end goal. But they’re also not trying to get too far ahead of themselves — after all, nobody has played a game yet.
“We want to win a Big Ten championship, a national championship,” Thompson said. “In order to do that, we’ve got to come in and put the work in every day. At the end of the day, the hype is just the hype.”
Thompson will play a big role in getting the Hoosiers to live up to that hype. After participating in senior day last season, it was unclear whether he would return for his last year of eligibility. But following a successful season where he averaged 11.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, Thompson decided to play one more year.
Alongside junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who entered the NBA Draft but withdrew before the deadline, Indiana’s frontcourt remains in the hands of its most experienced players.
Indiana didn’t hide its goals during its media day. But if there’s a lot of pressure from fans and the media, Woodson isn’t going to run from it, and he doesn’t want his players to, either.
“If they're scared of that challenge, then they shouldn't be here,” Woodson said. “That's kind of how I look at it. I'm not scared of it. You shouldn't be scared of it. We've got to do this together as a unit. Again, I know expectations are high. I get that. That's a good thing.”