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Monday, April 15
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

COLUMN: Mike Woodson and Indiana men’s basketball won’t land every recruit; that’s alright

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Coaching Indiana men’s basketball bears a large burden. Some of the sport’s most tenacious and demanding fans, Hoosier nation is a relentless group, constantly expecting to compete with the best and relive the glory days achieved decades ago no matter the circumstances around the program. 

Mike Woodson knew what he was walking into and embraced the challenge. Furthermore, he pushed the supposed limits right from the get-go. Now he’s calling out the haters. 

“That was you guys saying I was too old and couldn’t recruit,” Woodson said in an Oct. 27 Zoom press conference. “We’ve had some pretty good success being able to recruit and talk to some of the top players,” he later said.  

When Woodson was hired in March 2021, the general consensus provided a negative reaction. Many doubted the then-63-year-old who had never coached college basketball. Right before being hired, CBS sportswriter Gary Parrish wrote a column questioning if Indiana paid Archie Miller’s $10 million buyout to get worse. 

Woodson got to work early. Within a month of being hired, he earned a commitment from 4-star guard Tamar Bates then picked up Miller Kopp and current senior guard Xavier Johnson in the transfer portal. 

Woodson’s first year squad went 21-14 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, partly due to key contributions from Johnson and Kopp. However, the Hoosiers’ 29-point blowout loss in the tournament’s first round left Indiana fans with a sour taste in their mouths and Woodson’s coaching abilities were constantly questioned. 

So, Woodson loaded up on recruits again. He picked up two 5-stars — Jalen Hood-Schifino and sophomore forward Malik Reneau — and two other 4-stars while beating out some of the sport’s most prestigious programs in the process. The class ranked 10th in the 247 Sports Composite rankings. 

After another NCAA Tournament run, this time to the second round, Woodson put together another elite recruiting class, this time ranking 18th in the composite rankings. Freshman forward 5-star phenom Mackenzie Mgbako highlighted the class in addition to picking up former 5-star sophomore center Kel’el Ware in the transfer portal. 

It’s hard to doubt Woodson’s recruiting abilities. He collected three 5-star prospects in his first two full recruiting cycles in addition to getting Ware, the former No. 7 player in the 2022 class, via transfer portal. However, the queries are still being tossed around. 

The latest qualms against Woodson relate to the 2024 recruiting class — even though he’s already picked up a 5-star commitment in Liam McNeeley. The problem is McNeeley may be the class’ only recruit due to Woodson and company missing out on several tight races for 5-star recruits, most recently Johnuel “Boogie” Fland. 

Indiana fans are a double-edged sword and Mike Woodson is on the receiving end of the slashes. If he misses out on a few big-time recruits and doesn’t land a strong class, he gets criticized for putting all of his eggs in one basket and failing to out-recruit other programs. If he settles for lower rated recruits with a higher percentage of picking them up, he’d get slack for not recruiting strongly enough. 

Indiana fans need to relax. For a lot of reasons. 

It’s hard to bash Woodson when he’s now picked up four 5-star recruits in three recruiting cycles, with the potential of a fifth still on the board with the impending decision of 5-star center Derik Queen. Not only has he gotten these commitments, but so far, they have worked out — most notably NBA first round draft pick Jalen Hood-Schifino, who successfully increased his draft stock while simultaneously helping Indiana succeed. 

Of Woodson’s impressive haul of recruits during his Indiana tenure, three of them have come during the late stages of the recruiting process — Bates, Reneau and Mgbako. With five or six months left to flip a recruit or pounce on a decommit, like the aforementioned three were, Woodson has plenty of time left to drastically change the outlook of the 2024 class. 

Finally is what should be the most obvious reason that fans can’t seem to grasp: Indiana can’t get every single recruit. While it can be acknowledged that it’s a crushing feeling to see months of anticipation and build up in a recruiting battle all wiped away in an instant, it doesn’t validate the outlandish reactions from the fan base.  

No coach is capable of attaining every recruit they go after, but that’s what standard Hoosier fans seemingly hold Woodson to. Fland’s commitment to the University of Kentucky sent uproars through the fanbase due to Fland having been predicted to choose IU by some recruiting experts. The complaints varied from doubting Woodson’s closing abilities to complaining about how intently Fland was recruited while not pursuing others. 

That’s the Indiana basketball experience. Unreasonably high expectations and, as of recent years, failure to achieve.  

However, Woodson is starting to turn things around bit by bit. His two NCAA Tournament appearances are two more than Archie Miller ever managed in his disastrous Indiana tenure. He’s inherited and developed several top-level recruits with more on the way. All the while, he and the Hoosiers are inching closer towards Woodson’s first goal with the program: capturing a Big Ten title. 

Follow reporters Will Foley (@foles24) and Matt Press (@MattPress23) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season. 

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