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Sunday, April 21
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

COLUMN: If only for a night, Mike Woodson’s Indiana basketball vision came back to life

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Xavier Johnson turned to his left, lifted his right arm to trigger position and reminded Indiana basketball of the potential it once had. 

The Hoosiers’ sixth-year senior point guard, taking the form of a marksman in the first half of his return from a left arm injury that cost him the last six games. 

Indiana head coach Mike Woodson has, at various points, dwelled on Johnson’s absence, which coincided with the Hoosiers’ 1-5 record in February entering Tuesday night’s game against Wisconsin. 

But Johnson was back — his energy, his scoring and his sheer presence — as was Indiana (15-13, 7-10 Big Ten) in the win column, taking a 74-70 victory over the Badgers (18-10, 10-7 Big Ten) inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. 

“This win means a lot,” sophomore center Kel’el Ware said postgame. “It's not even just about me. That whole team has just been, as y'all seen, on a little downhill. I feel like tonight we finally got over the hump everybody has been talking about.” 

Ware had a game-high 27 points and 11 rebounds, notching his 12th double-double of the season. A pair of forwards in sophomore Malik Reneau and freshman Mackenzie Mgbako followed with 14 points apiece. Senior guard Trey Galloway tallied 12 assists, tying for the most in his career. 

As a team, the Hoosiers shot 62% from the floor, went an efficient 6-of-14 from the 3-point line and hit 10-of-15 free throws, which, while still lackluster, is a stark improvement after three consecutive games below 60%. They pulled down 31 rebounds to the Badgers’ 27. 

Woodson’s vision for this Indiana team — pushing the pace, making shots, dominating from the inside-out and turning defense into offense — at last came to fruition for a full 40 minutes, some 28 games in the making. 

“It's not like I haven't seen that out of our team,” Woodson said. “We just haven't done it consistently. Tonight was Indiana basketball at its best.” 

Johnson’s return played a considerable part in the Hoosiers’ bounce back victory. His stat line — 5 points, one assist and five turnovers on 2-of-3 shooting — may not reflect it, but his leadership and energy provided Indiana with life it’s largely been without since his injury. 

“He gives us defensive pressure out front,” Woodson said. “He gives us speed in terms of he's the only guy that can really change directions and make plays off the bounce. And then when we're pushing the basketball, that's when we're at our best. When he's got the ball and pushing and we can get ahead of the ball, we can play a little faster with X on the floor.” 

Indiana’s struggles haven’t been completely eradicated with Johnson on the court; the Hoosiers are just 9-6 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten when he plays. 

But it’s hard not to ponder the games Indiana let slip away, be it against the University of Kansas on Dec. 16, Penn State on Feb. 3 or Northwestern on Feb. 18, due to an inability to stop runs, something its senior leader was expected to help with. 

With Johnson out, the Hoosiers turned to freshman point guard Gabe Cupps, who averaged 2.3 points and 0.7 assists per game during his six-game stint as a starter. Woodson said Feb. 26 he put too much pressure on Cupps, as Johnson’s absence forced the Dayton, Ohio, native into a much larger role than expected. 

As a result, Indiana’s offense struggled. Woodson said the team couldn’t generate as many quality looks from beyond the arc because it lacked Johnson’s ability to execute the pick and roll and stress defenses. The Hoosiers shot only 25.5% from distance in their six games without Johnson. 

Without fail, Johnson’s return helped Indiana find itself — and gives Woodson further reason to believe the Hoosiers’ disappointing season was derailed by his veteran point guard’s two extended injury stints. 

“Every day I go to bed thinking about what this team could have been like if we had X earlier,” Woodson said. “You can see the game changes a little bit when he's on the floor. He didn't play particularly well, but I thought he did some good things when he was in there. Good to have him back, man. Just got to keep patting him and keep him safe and see if we can get where we need to go.” 

Woodson said Feb. 26 he expected Indiana to mature at a faster rate than it did. Some 24 hours later, the Hoosiers had their backs against the wall, watching as a 15-point lead turned into a 2-point deficit with less than two minutes to play. 

The victory doesn’t change the reality of this season — Indiana still needs a miraculous run in the Big Ten Tournament to make March Madness — but for one night, Woodson’s vision for this year’s Hoosiers was illustrated. 

The result? A dramatic, emotionally relieving victory in front of an energized Hoosier faithful that fostered a rewarding moment for one of the Big Ten’s youngest teams, aided in part by the return of its wily veteran. 

“We all forget these are 18- and 19-year-old young men,” Woodson said. “Sometimes their feelings are crushed too, but that locker room is happy. It's like we got that monkey off our back, so I'm happy for them.” 

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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