By Andy Katz
FOX Sports College Basketball Analyst
MINNEAPOLIS — Picking Indiana to win the Big Ten and be a preseason top-10 team wasn’t difficult at all.
The Hoosiers return nearly their whole team, including Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and potential first-team All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Race Thompson pairs with TJD in the frontcourt again. Xavier Johnson brings back his toughness and perimeter grit. Miller Kopp can be a quality spot-up shooter once more — if he can find his consistency. Jordan Geronimo, Tamar Bates and Trey Galloway are the ultimate rotation players who will all have their moments. And the recruiting class, led by freshmen Jalen Hood-Schifino on the perimeter and Malik Reneau up front, make this the deepest, most dangerous team in the Big Ten.
This was a consensus, no-brainer pick.
And all you have to do is think back to how the Hoosiers played in the postseason.
Lock. Down. Defense.
Indiana beat Michigan in a second-half surge. The Hoosiers held Illinois to 63 in a two-point win. And after losing to Iowa in the conference semifinals, Indiana then held Wyoming to 58 points in the First Four in Dayton.
A few days later, the Hoosiers were sliced up by Saint Mary’s in Portland. And while that was disappointing, it was more motivation.
“We’re definitely hungry,” said Thompson. “Having that taste makes us even Hungarian to take that next step.”
This isn’t a leap. It’s the natural progression with a team that actually stayed together and wasn’t gutted by the NBA Draft and/or transfer portal.
“When I decided to come back, the whole state was behind me and my teammates,” said Jackson-Davis. “It’s hard to leave this place. We’ve got unfinished business.”
Jackson-Davis said the defensive flip for the Hoosiers and strong postseason performance showed what was plausible if this group stayed together.
“Everyone saw we were playing like a top-20, top-15 team,” said Jackson-Davis. “When you play like that with the freshmen we have coming in like Jalen and Malik the sky’s the limit.”
Indiana fans have every reason to be more skittish than all-in. The Hoosiers have been the opposite of consistent for decades. But this time, yes this time, there is no reason why Indiana can’t live up to expectations and legitimately make a Final Four run to Houston.
“The nucleus is back with Trayce, Race, X and Miller and I like to think Tamar Bates has gotten better and Geronimo started to come on late for us,” said Woodson. “And then the addition of the four freshmen. Somehow they’ve got to be a big-time sponge and learn as much as they can. We’ve got to speed the process up if we’re going to do any damage they have to play a part in that.”
Woodson was notably a defensive coach in the NBA, and that’s his angle in college. Playing D means his team will likely be in close games. The Hoosiers lost their share of late-possession games a season ago. That lesson has been learned for sure.
The Hoosiers will have to shoot better than 33% on 3s, but having more scoring options in and around the basket could make up for it this season. They will try to get out and run as much as possible and lock teams up.
Indiana’s depth, experience and star power make the Hoosiers the easy pick in the Big Ten, with so many teams going through a massive overhaul in talent. Don’t get me wrong here, the conference will have plenty of NCAA Tournament candidates — potentially somewhere from nine to 11.
But Woodson wasn’t afraid to schedule for not just a bid, but a high seed. Woodson didn’t have a say in the Gavitt Games but landed a high-level road test at Xavier on Nov. 18. He also gets a blockbuster ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup against likely No. 1 and 2022 national runner-up North Carolina on Nov. 30. Woodson did have a say in scheduling Arizona in Las Vegas on Dec. 10 and at Kansas on Dec. 17. Few coaches would put their team through a gauntlet like that without confidence in his team being able to handle it.
“It’s going to be crazy (for North Carolina), unbelievable,” said Woodson. “We’ve got Kansas and Arizona in Las Vegas. It should be that way. College basketball is supposed to be competitive and fun but we’ve still got to go out and win. And that’s what we’re going to try and do.
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Andy Katz is a longtime college basketball writer, analyst and host. He can be seen on FOX Sports and Big Ten Network platforms, as well as March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz worked at ESPN for nearly two decades and, prior to that, in newspapers for nine years.
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