MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — There are Indiana basketball fans who have already booked hotel rooms in Houston for the Final Four in April. That’s how far — and how fast — this runaway train of expectations is rolling down the tracks already.
On paper, this is the best Indiana basketball team since 2016, a group that surprisingly won a Big Ten title for Tom Crean and bought him another year at Indiana.
This team is better.
Both the 2016 Hoosiers and the 2023 team have/had great freshmen, both have/had a standout veteran point guard (Yogi Ferrell, Xavier Johnson), but this current team has the better superstar in Trayce Jackson-Davis, and that’s not even close .
They’ve been picked to win the Big Ten this year, something that hasn’t really happened since 2013, those lofty preseason expectations. That was Indiana’s best team in the past 30 years, going all the way back to the great teams in 1992 and 1993. There were national championship aspirations for that team, which included several weeks begin ranked No. 1 in the country with Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo and the gang.
That kind of talk is coming back. But here in mid-October, lofty expectations are just that. They are just talking.
But isn’t it lovely, wonderful talk to have? We’ve all missed it for far too long.
Indiana coach Mike Woodson, who can laugh now that he’s not a ”rookie coach” anymore despite 30 years of NBA experience, knows all about lofty expectations. He can remember back to his senior year at Indiana in 1980, which was my senior year, too. The Hoosiers were preseason No. 1 in Sports Illustrated that season, and won the Big Ten in dramatic fashion, but lost in the NCAA regional semifinals to, all all people, Purdue.
So he knows all about expectations.
“Well, it is what it is. It’s a part of the game,” Woodson said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days in Minneapolis. “When I was in school as a player, I never bought into the rankings, what the media would say about our ballclub. You still got to go out and play the game.
“Hell, my senior year we were ranked No. 1 and we didn’t get it done. So at the end of the day I guess it’s kind of nice for our players who haven’t experienced that. Again, you’ve got to go out and play. You’ve got to prove it on the basketball floor. That’s when it counts.”
We all know that, of course. No NCAA or Big Ten titles have ever been won in October. But for Indiana, basically a college basketball non-factor for a dozen or so years now, this season is big. They were the prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten in the preseason media poll, garnering 19 of the 28 first-place votes.
Preseason Big Ten media poll
(first-place votes in parenthesis)
- Indiana, 43 (19)
- Ill., 81 (6)
- Michigan, 92 (1)
- Michigan State, 139
- Purdue, 141 (1)
- Ohio State, 167
- Iowa, 185 (1)
- Rutgers, 218
- Wisconsin, 229
- Maryland, 267
- Penn State, 304
- Minnesota, 334
- Northwestern, 362
- Nebraska, 378
This is an Indiana team, mind you, that went just 21-14 a year ago and played well late in the season to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. They won a play-in game, but then got thumped by 29 points in their first full-bracket tournament game in six years. It’s not like they won 30 games or anything.
But they have a ton of talent coming back AND a great recruiting class coming in, which is a rare combination in college basketball. Trayce Jackson-Davis decided to run it back for one more year, and that changed everything. He’s an All-American candidate for sure, and he’s surrounded by a lot of veteran depth.
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He’s also surrounded by Indiana’s best recruiting class in years, led by five-star guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, guard CJ Gunn and forward Malik Reneau and Kaleb Banks. All four of them have been very impressive all summer, and will make Indiana better immediately.
We will learn a lot about these expectations in November and December in a much-tougher nonconference schedule that include true road games at Xavier (Nov. 18) and Kansas (Dec. 17), a home meeting on Nov. 30 with North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and a Las Vegas get-together with Arizona on Dec. 10
That’s a lofty challenge.
“Again, I think competition is great, man. I mean, it’s good for your program,” Woodson said. “I thought last season we made a major step. My whole team, that was the first time they experienced the Big Dance. I remember back in the day we used to always experience the Big Dance. So I was very excited for our ballclub.
“We thought coming into this season, not even knowing if we were going to get Trayce back, Race had committed to come back, we had already put our schedule in play with North Carolina and Kansas and Arizona. Which I think is good. It gives us the opportunity to play some of the best teams in the country, just see where you are as a ballclub.”
With expectations comes pressure as well. For a fan base starving for success, this is the year Woodson and his team can deliver on that. It’s the next step.
But it’s also a very big step.
“Well, again, it’s me and my staff, we’ve got a big task ahead of us,” Woodson said. “That’s what I signed up for, which is OK. I feel good about what I do as a coach.
“But at the end of the day, we’ve got to get 17 players playing at a high level in order to win the Big Ten or a national title. The Big Ten is good, man. You’ve got a lot of great coaches, a lot of great teams. Then our schedule early is very competitive. We’ve got a lot of work to do this season, man. But you can’t run from it or be scared of competition. This is what college basketball I came here, I signed up for this, so I’m looking to push these guys to the max and see what happens.”
Jackson-Davis, who has scored 1,588 points at Indiana and is already ranked No. 15 all-time in scoring, firmly embraces the preseason hype, too. He wants it, because being a middle-of-the-pack guy isn’t his thing.
He wants to win. That’s why he came back. And it’s not just to win games. He wants some trophies.
“You’ve just got to handle it with a grain of salt. We’ve got to come to practice every day and compete,” Jackson-Davis said while wearing his new candy-striped blazer at Media Days. “We have to take it game by game. It’s great to have aspirations and it’s great to see the media talking love to us, but it puts a target on our back. We’ve got to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
He’s really looking forward to all those preseason tests. North Carolina will probably be preseason No. 1, Kansas, the defending national champions, are a top-5 team and Arizona, like Indiana, is a top-15 team for sure.
“It was great for me, because Coach Woodson always tells me that competition is healthy,” he said. “Going in there, I think it’s really going to get us ready for March, playing in this big games and not having them at home, traveling a little bit. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“We had Hoosier Hysteria last week and that was the most people I’ve seen there in a long time. Just being out there and compete in front of them is going to be a lot of fun.”
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