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Monday, June 17
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

COLUMN: Indiana basketball was a sinking ship. Johnson has it ‘clicking on all cylinders’

Iu vs Penn State -Big10-Finasl -16.jpg

MINNEAPOLIS — Xavier Johnson walked up the court, controlling pace while offering the leadership and composure expected from a sixth-year senior. 

Standing on the Big Ten logo planted at midcourt inside the Target Center, Johnson dribbled with one hand and gave a thumbs up with the other. Four passes later, sophomore center Kel’el Ware soared through the air, flushing a two-handed dunk to give Indiana men’s basketball a 2-point lead with 1:46 to play. 

Johnson’s thumbs-up summarized Thursday night for the Hoosiers, who, led by a putback from senior guard Anthony Leal with five seconds left, took a dramatic 61-59 victory over Penn State that lifts Indiana to the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. 

It’s Indiana’s fifth consecutive win, each taking place since Johnson came back from a left elbow injury that cost him six games in February. To sophomore forward Malik Reneau, the winning streak upon Johnson’s return is no coincidence. 

“X is our backbone,” Reneau said postgame. “He's been through a lot and him coming back, it helps us a lot. A great point guard, X is. He's helping us get open shots, putting the ball in the correct position, handling it, pushing the break, we’re faster on the breaks, we’re running more. It’s been great to have X back.” 

Johnson played 37 minutes and scored only 4 points, but he added six rebounds, five assists and irreplaceable leadership the Hoosiers have desperately missed in his absences, which total 13 when factoring in a seven-game stint earlier this season. 

In practice, Ware said Johnson gets into teammates, telling them what they can improve and how to fix it. Ware thinks Johnson’s leadership in huddles has translated to his presence on the court, helping the Woodbridge, Virginia, native be a central figure in the Hoosiers’ late push. 

Or, as Reneau and freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako said, the backbone. 

“He brings everything together,” Mgbako said postgame. “So just having him on the court has been real refreshing because we’ve got somebody to go to at all times.” 

Indiana was 14-13 and had lost four straight when Johnson returned. There was little hope in a March Madness run. For the sixth-year senior who missed all but 11 games last season due to a foot injury, going out quietly wasn’t an option. 

Johnson’s February absence came with the opportunity to watch and evaluate his teammates. He saw the season slipping away — more importantly, he saw two years’ worth of work restoring the program to relevancy start to go by the wayside. 

He was given a six-to-seven-week timeline by Indiana’s doctors. He returned in four weeks — and driven perhaps by a sense of desperation, has sparked a late-season surge. 

“I got tired of just watching it go downhill — the boat sink,” Johnson said postgame. “I tried to put the plug in the boat, because I just didn't want to see us go downhill as a team. I didn't want to see this program go down either, because it's a beautiful program, and what we have built for the last two years, we want to keep it going.” 

Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said after the game that Johnson has provided stability in the backcourt, which proved crucial Thursday as the Hoosiers were without senior guard Trey Galloway, who’s battling a knee injury and is questionable to play moving forward. 

But Indiana’s recent rise isn’t solely due to Johnson. Instead, it’s a collective effort in which everything — from offense to defense, shot making to shot defending — has come together in unity. 

“Defensively we've picked up, and offensively we've made shots,” Woodson said. “We didn't tonight, but in the previous four games, we've really been shooting the ball extremely well from the 3-point line, and we've been making our free throws. We're sharing the ball — I think in our last four games I charted, we were No. 1 in the Big Ten in assists. So, everything is clicking.” 

Woodson recently noted Indiana had a similarly impressive end to the 2021-22 season, his first year as head coach. Johnson played an integral part of that run, which included a pair of Big Ten Tournament wins that helped the Hoosiers snap a five-year NCAA Tournament drought. 

Johnson believes the two teams are similar, each battling the growing pains of a new roster before finding its groove late. Indiana, as Woodson’s noted previously, has 10 new players. 

It’s taken until March, but the Hoosiers, not-so-new faces and all, are suddenly a well-oiled machine. 

“Team all trusts each other,” Reneau said. “We’re playing well, we're moving the ball, a lot’s going well. Defensive side, we're holding teams to one possession, not a lot of second chance points. We're holding teams to one or two shots, we're rebounding the ball, we're passing it. We're playing really well together, and we’ve got to keep that up.” 

Indiana shot only 39% Thursday but made plays when it needed to. Leal was the superhero, but the Hoosiers’ collective effort helped secure a thrilling victory that keeps them in Minneapolis another day longer. 

“It’s amazing,” Mgbako said. “It’s a great time to be clicking on all cylinders, and that’s what we’re doing. So, I can’t ask for anything more.” 

The Hoosiers return to the Target Center for an approximate 9 p.m. EST tipoff Friday against Nebraska. Reneau said the team’s focus will be on sleep, recovery and game planning. 

But most of all, it’s bringing the effort needed to sustain a winning streak for three more days, with a trip to the big dance — and a chance to save the season — hanging in the balance. 

“Just locking in and playing as hard as you can the next 40 minutes we get on that court, because we don't know if it’s going to be our last,” Reneau said. “We’ve been saying, ‘Win or go home.’ So, we’ve got to go hard every time.” 

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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