Xavier Johnson got comfortable. That’s when the Big Ten got easier for him.
Amid his first season with Indiana men’s basketball after transferring from the University of Pittsburgh, the senior guard had to get accustomed to the Big Ten crowds, which he said were much different than those in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Around halfway through the season, Johnson settled in. He scored double-digit points in each of his last 10 games, including a double-double at Purdue in a tightly contested game March 5.
“I put in a lot of work, and I was getting mad at myself for not being successful,” Johnson said at Indiana basketball’s media day Sept. 22. “So, when it came, I just took the opportunity and excelled at it.”
Indiana is proclaiming itself as the hunted this season. Every team in the Big Ten is looking up at the Hoosiers in the preseason rankings, trying to topple a team with national title hopes.
Johnson, as the point guard, is Indiana’s floor general, meaning he’s shouldering a lot of the expectations surrounding the program.
“I just try to get everybody to be on the same page,” Johnson said. “Every day, we got to come every day ready to practice. Every game is gonna be a lesson.”
Under head coach Mike Woodson, Johnson said he’s grown as a leader. Last year he led the team on the court down the stretch, propelling them to the Hoosiers’ first postseason bid in six years.
“Guys listen to me,” Johnson said. “I was doing the right things on and off the court at that moment in time.”
Woodson said he expects a lot out of Johnson, who most likely caught more flak from the coaching staff than anyone else on the team last season.
In April, Johnson was arrested and was preliminarily charged with reckless driving and resisting law enforcement. He pled guilty to the charge of reckless driving in August, while the latter charge was dropped.
Around 3 a.m. April 3, Johnson had been seen in a car going 90 mph down North Walnut Street, according to an incident report. The police said they saw Johnson, the driver, switch seats with another passenger once the car pulled over after initially refusing to stop.
Johnson received a 60-day suspended sentence, meaning he will not serve any jail time so long as he completes the 360 days of unsupervised probation and 50 hours of community service also included in the sentence.
“X hung in there with me,” Woodson said. “He fought me at times, but it worked out well for him at the end and for our ballclub.”
This summer, Woodson said Johnson was one of the team’s brightest spots in how he practiced and improved. But he’s also had to do a lot of maturing.
“X has grown a lot, based on the things that he's done this summer,” Woodson said. “He's put himself in a wonderful position with me being the coach. I like everything about what X is doing now, because he is doing the right things on and off the court.”
Although Johnson avoided any major punishment or suspension, he did get his car taken away. Woodson said he wasn’t allowed to drive it this year, so he left it at home in Virginia.
Johnson said he understands this punishment. He’s getting rides from teammates when he needs them, and he’s listening to what Woodson is telling him. He’s also aware how much worse the incident could’ve been, saying it could have gone “way left.”
Behind junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, Johnson might be the Hoosiers’ second-best player. The two spend a lot of time together, both on and off the court, and Johnson said their connection is stronger for it.
“I’m his point guard,” Johnson said. “He's one of my responsibilities. Let him know, get him to play hard every possession and go finish at the rim.”
In the back of Johnson’s mind is the NCAA Tournament game against Saint Mary’s College. The Hoosiers were embarrassed by the Gaels, blown out 82-53 on the national stage after barely sneaking into the main draw of the tournament. Johnson scored 11 points in 25 minutes.
He wants to lead Indiana back to that stage and return to the tournament in much more convincing fashion to avenge that loss.
“You can never lose track of that,” Johnson said. “It was best to make the tournament. But when it all comes down to it, we got to know that we pretty much didn't deserve to be in that position. Honestly.”