For one night, Indiana basketball felt like Indiana basketball again.
The big-game atmosphere returned to Assembly Hall Wednesday night, as the Hoosiers pulled out a tough win against a quality St. John's team. Indiana basketball was enjoyable again. For the first time in years, it felt like all was well in Bloomington. Mike Woodson finally appears to have Indiana heading in the right direction.
A 76-74 win over an unranked St. John's team in November isn't going to remind anyone of Bob Knight's heyday. But given what Hoosier fans have suffered through for, oh, about two decades, there was much to celebrate Wednesday night. This Indiana team finally has talent worthy of the brand. The squad is led by All-American big man Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is flanked by a host of tough, hard-nosed players and several teammates with big upside. The Hoosiers have a chance to do something this year.
Indiana jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first half against St. John's and looked like a team that belonged in the Top 15. The ball moved, the shots fell, the dunks were thunderous, the players cracked smiles on the court and appeared to be enjoying themselves as the crowd buzzed into a frenzy. But the Hoosiers squandered that lead in the second half, allowing the Red Storm to tie things up. It was a familiar pattern Indiana fans have seen repeated over the past few years. This time, the result would be different.
In the past, the Hoosiers would have wilted in the face of that comeback, packed it in and accepted defeat. But not this group. Not on Woodson's watch. Jackson-Davis & Co. took the best punch the Johnnies had to offer and countered it, making winning plays down the stretch to eke out a close win. It was a remarkable finish for fans accustomed to regularly-scheduled gut-punch defeats.
Woodson has his players believing they can win these games. And why not? They have an excellent roster. Jackson-Davis gets all the headlines, but forward Race Thompson might be the team's most important player given his infectious attitude and hustle. He plays a Draymond Green-like, do-everything role for Indiana, typically filling up every slot in the box score. He hit the shot that sealed Wednesday night's win. That duo is surrounded in the starting lineup by three transfers: point guard Xavier Thompson and sharpshooting wings Miller Kopp and Parker Stewart. All bring something different to the table.
The bench is where things get really exciting for Hoosier fans. Three-year starting point guard Rob Phinisee, highly-touted freshman guard Tamar Bates, sophomore forward Jordan Geronimo and center transfer Michael Durr should all play huge roles this year. Bates, a high-upside star in the making, played 27 minutes on Wednesday, scoring 11 points. He was on the floor on many key second-half possessions. Meanwhile, Geronimo oozes potential and appears to have improved tremendously this offseason. That's not even mentioning former five-star sophomore point guard Khristian Lander whose transition to the college game has been rocky. Against St. John's, Lander played six crucial minutes and showed well.
Indiana has the players to make a run this year if Woodson can continue to develop them. The team needs to improve a ton to compete in the Big Ten, but talent won't be an issue.
While a 3-0 start is nice, it's not the reason for this rosy view of what Woodson can accomplish at Indiana. His program has surprised some by scoring some big wins on the recruiting trail already. Aside from reeling in Bates late in the 2021 cycle, he also landed Johnson, Kopp and Durr as transfers (Stewart arrived last season). Woodson has kept the recruiting momentum going, garnering commitments from five-star point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino and four-star forward Kaleb Banks for the 2022 class. He's also notched some big wins for the 2023 cycle, landing athletic four-star wing Jakai Newton out of Georgia and rising point guard Gabe Cupps out of Ohio.
It's not just the team on the floor, the program itself has a ton of momentum. For the first time in years it feels like Indiana is actually moving forward instead of revving its engine while stuck in the mud. It's a feeling unfamiliar to Hoosier fans.
There's hope in Bloomington again. And dammit if it isn't fun.