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Mike Woodson Has Indiana Back in the NCAA Tournament After Six Long Years

Ryan Phillips
Mike Woodson, Big Ten Tournament
Mike Woodson, Big Ten Tournament / Justin Casterline/GettyImages
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Mike Woodson's Indiana Hoosiers did it. Somehow, they did it. Against crazy odds, they have all but assuredly secured themselves a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. And they did it in the Big Ten Tournament, which has historically been a house of horrors for Indiana basketball.

Indiana is dancing thanks to wins over Michigan and Illinois on consecutive days. The Hoosiers dug down deep and found some heart to crawl back from a 17-point deficit against the Wolverines on Thursday, then kept counter-punching every move the Illini threw at them, edging the top-seeded squad 65-63 on Friday. Both Michigan and Illinois dominated Indiana at Assembly Hall during the regular season, making this weekend's wins even more impressive.

The Hoosiers had lost seven of nine entering the tournament after starting the season 16-5 (7-4 in the Big Ten). Their resume was not tournament-worthy, with only two Quad 1 wins (home victories over Ohio State and Purdue). Now, life looks a whole lot different for Indiana. Back-to-back excellent victories has almost certainly catapulted them to the right side of the bubble.

The fact that the Hoosiers secured their spot in the Big Dance through the Big Ten Tournament is the mostly shocking thing to their fans. Indiana hadn't won two games in the tournament since 2003. In what is usually a home atmosphere, the Hoosiers have repeatedly found fascinating ways to lose games in their conference's postseason affair. Somehow in 2022, they've flipped the script and are finding ways to win.

Friday's victory owes to Trayce Jackson-Davis elevating his game against Kofi Cockburn, who has dominated Indiana's star big man for years. On February 8 in Bloomington, Cockburn led Illinois to a 74-57 win, scoring 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds, while holding Jackson-Davis to only six points and six boards. With Indiana's tournament life on the line, Jackson-Davis stepped up.

While Cockburn was excellent on Friday (23 points, 10 rebounds), the man known as TJD matched him. Indiana's star junior finished with 21 points and seven boards, plus three assists and a block. He also sunk two clutch free throws with 26 seconds remaining to give Indiana a 64-63 lead. Perhaps most telling, in Cockburn's 33 minutes, Illinois was +1, in Jackson-Davis' 36 minutes, Indiana was +4. The Hoosiers won by two.

While the end of the season was forgettable for Woodson's team, its performance in two backs-against-the-wall games is a great sign for the program's future. Indiana has wilted down the stretch in big games this season, blowing second-half leads against Wisconsin (twice), Penn State, Rutgers, Purdue, Illinois and Iowa. The final five minutes have rarely been kind to the Hoosiers. When it came to winning time, they simply didn't step up. Indiana has enough talent to be a top 15 team but has almost never played like it down the stretch of games. Over the last two days that's changed.

Credit has to go to Woodson and the team's leadership. Indiana's players -- led by Jackson-Davis and Xavier Johnson -- have displayed an aggressive, bulldog mentality in key situations late. Woodson built the Big Ten's best defense this season and it hasn't failed the Hoosiers in the postseason. Indiana held Illinois to 1.000 points per possession on Friday and the Illini didn't have a field goal in the final 5:04. It was a brilliant performance and made up for the fact that the 3-point deficient Hoosiers only hit three shots from beyond the arc.

Simply put, the Hoosiers seem to finally believe they can win these games and are playing like it.

On Saturday Indiana will face Iowa with a spot in the Big Ten Tournament final on the line. It's a place the Hoosiers haven't been since 2001. And they've never won it. Woodson's team has defied the odds this far, why not take it another step? The title is there for the taking.

The Hoosiers are likely in the tournament after its two stunning wins this week. But if Mike Woodson wants to truly show Indiana is on the path to national prominence, there would be no better way than to take home a title that has eluded every other coach to roam Indiana's sidelines. There's nothing standing in the Hoosiers' way but belief in themselves.

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