Indiana, Mike Woodson and a season going nowhere fast

  • 02/23/2024 10:41 am in

Following his postgame media availability, Mike Woodson, head down and briefcase in hand, left Assembly Hall’s player’s lounge in a hurry after Nebraska beat Indiana 85-70 Wednesday night.

The loss marked the Cornhuskers’ regular-season sweep of Indiana and second win over the Hoosiers by 15 points or more this season. Indiana has now lost seven of its last nine games and is far from the NCAA tournament or even the NIT bubble. Its No. 102 ranking on Kenpom is the lowest the Hoosiers have had since 2010.

Things are getting ugly. Indiana came into the season as one of the most intriguing teams on paper in the Big Ten but is currently sitting at 6-9 in conference play and 11th in the standings. A promising young group with a high upside at the start of the season has turned into a disaster and an in-cohesive on-the-court product in late February.

After the loss on Wednesday, Woodson was vague, clearly disappointed in his team’s performance, but concerningly cloudy. It’s clear after three years of being the head coach, Woodson likes to keep things in-house; he rarely adds context or detail to the team’s practices and preparation. When IU is winning, it’s a lot easier to get away with that.

But with the Hoosiers struggling, some questions need to be answered and context needs to be given. Keeping the fanbase at arm’s length can create distrust and raise more questions about what is happening in the locker room and Cook Hall. If Woodson were to have an honest and realistic discussion about the team’s state, fans may be more open to what he’s saying. The sentiment after every loss that Indiana just needs to “keep working” is starting to create a sour taste.

“We’re young, missing our senior point guard, trying to play a freshman at point guard. It’s tough,” Woodson said after the game.

“We had no defensive effort, I thought, the first half. We just weren’t up to touch …so I got to keep working with them and see if I can get them playing two halves.”

No one is debating Indiana is young and missing its senior point guard. Xavier Johnson has been hurt for the better part of two seasons and according to Kenpom, Indiana is No. 227 out of 362 Division I teams in experience. Those statements are facts, but they’ve been overused to the point where they sound like excuses. If anything, the experience is something Woodson should have considered in the offseason. Right now, the accountability for who actually built the roster and works the team day in and day out isn’t there.

In Tuesday’s pre-Nebraska media availability, Woodson mentioned that Indiana didn’t expect Jalen Hood-Schifino to be a one-and-done. Woodson said Hood-Schifino’s departure threw a wrench in his and his staff’s plans at the guard position and that’s why they’ve had to play freshman point guard Gabe Cupps the amount they have.

“When I recruited Gabe, the deal was everybody thought Jalen wouldn’t be a one-and-done,” Woodson said. “That was the whole deal.

“When we knew Jalen was leaving, we desperately tried to find a backup point guard or a starting point guard …we’ve basically come into this season hoping like hell that ‘X’ didn’t get hurt and Gabe would get an opportunity to learn slowly, but that hasn’t been the case.”

In October of 2022, some mock drafts already had Hood-Schifino as a first-round NBA draft choice.

If the week couldn’t get any worse for Woodson and his staff, they also missed on Derik Queen, a five-star center who chose Maryland on Wednesday. Indiana’s 2024 class currently just has one player, Liam McNeeley.

Commentary about Woodson’s job security will only intensify as Indiana’s season continues to spiral downward. The pressure on Woodson, which in its own right is earned at Indiana, is rising.

If IU chooses to move on from Woodson – an unlikely action – it looks awful to former players and Bob Knight loyalists. Woodson, a beloved former player and program figure who made the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons, gets the boot after one lousy year? Archie Miller, who never made the big dance and had no previous ties to the university, was given a longer leash and more time. How is that fair? Well, it’s not. But, if Indiana gives Woodson more time, there’s the risk of his tenure turning toxic and ugly. Safe to say, no one envies the IU administration’s position this spring.

On Tuesday, Woodson was adamant about staying at Indiana.

“I’m almost 66, but I feel good, and I still move around, and I think that I still think well in terms of the game, and I still think I can teach the game,” Woodson said. “I don’t know, there are coaches that are coaching into their 70s. I don’t know if that’s something I’ll do, I don’t know. But at this point, I’ll take it a day at a time, a year at a time.

“I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, guys. I’m just not.”

If Woodson doesn’t want to go anywhere, there will have to be significant changes and a clearer sense of where the program is going under him.

As he said after the Nebraska game, “Nobody is going to feel sorry for Indiana basketball.”

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