Seated beneath Indiana men’s basketball’s five national championship banners, third-year head coach Mike Woodson expressed a sense of urgency.
Woodson has ushered in improvement during his first two years at the helm, but he knows Hoosier fans crave more.
“Somehow I’ve got to get them over the hump,” Woodson said at Indiana’s basketball media day Sept. 20. “I’m the coach, and I’ve got to get them over the hump where we can hang another banner in here. I mean, that’s all I think about.”
Following a 2022-23 campaign that saw the Hoosiers finish second in the Big Ten and garner a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Woodson quickly had to shift his focus and brace for the departure of several key contributors.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, who left a mammoth legacy after a storied four-year career, and crafty one-and-done point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino both found homes in the NBA, the former with the Golden State Warriors and the latter with the Los Angeles Lakers. Adding the graduations of Race Thompson and Miller Kopp, Indiana suddenly found itself with four significant roles to fill.
Roster upheaval isn’t foreign to Woodson. In stints with both the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, Woodson fostered sizeable changes to personnel. In New York, Woodson brought in nine new players in one offseason to surround franchise cornerstone Carmelo Anthony.
Woodson faced a similar challenge this offseason, but he was able to land a pair of potential stars in freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako — the No. 10 overall recruit in the class of 2023 — and 7-foot University of Oregon sophomore transfer Kel’el Ware.
While the influx of talent is undeniable, a lack of experience becomes the major question. Aside from redshirt senior guard Xavier Johnson and senior guard Trey Galloway, the new-look Hoosiers, composed primarily of underclassmen, boast marginal collegiate experience.
“I’m dealing with young players now,” Woodson said. “You have to be patient with a lot of these young guys. I understand that, but on the flipside, I’ve got to be myself, and I’ve got to coach and push and try to get guys to do things at a higher level than they’re probably used to doing.”
Stylistically, Indiana could present different looks than in recent years. Jackson-Davis found the bulk of his success in the low block and around the rim, but with Ware, the Hoosiers have a player with the ability to pop out beyond the arc and shoot 3-pointers.
While Woodson said the starting rotation is yet to be determined, Mgbako will likely carve out a significant role. Standing at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, Mgbako displayed a keen ability to play multiple positions effectively during his time at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey.
Like Ware, Mgbako provides shot creation and modern-day big man skills that the Hoosiers have lacked in recent years. Still, Johnson said the freshman has room to grow in his shot selection ahead of the season.
“To be honest, there’s not much you need to tell Mack,” Johnson said. “One thing we try to hold back on him is taking bad shots. That’s the thing that usually freshmen come in and do — they just think it’s going to be shoot the ball, shoot the ball, shoot the ball.”
With an array of newcomers in 4-star freshman point guard Gabe Cupps, Mgbako, Ware and senior University of Miami transfer Anthony Walker, the Hoosiers don’t have the luxury of deep-rooted chemistry.
To Johnson, who Woodson named a captain alongside Galloway, Indiana needs to start jelling — and fast.
“This is a major time for us as a team because we’ve got to come together right now,” Johnson said. “We can’t wait until November to come together.”
Woodson is laser-focused on his goals: Big Ten and national titles. He lamented falling short in his first pair of seasons, and knows he’ll need more from his group to reach the pinnacle.
Though Indiana will undoubtedly need plentiful contributions from its newcomers, the growth of homegrown talent is equally as important. Woodson mentioned needing to see more from sophomores Kaleb Banks and CJ Gunn — both of whom are likely to see an uptick in usage.
In a rapidly changing landscape of college basketball, Woodson has seemed up to the task regarding recruiting and NIL responsibilities. Still, on court production is paramount.
He knows he needs results.
“I don’t want to wait. My clock is ticking,” Woodson said. “I want everything this year.”