Two thousand one hundred and seventy-seven days. Three hundred and eleven weeks. Seventy-one months. Two presidents, two coaches, handfuls of recruits and many opportunities which slipped just out of the Hoosiers’ hands.
All of that, and it took Indiana men’s basketball just 40 minutes to all but stamp its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 with a 65-63 win over No. 1-seed Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Its head coach, Mike Woodson, admits he’s not too knowledgeable about how the selection process works. When he was asked how it feels to get there, he replied with a question of his own:
“Are you sure we’re in?”
And at that, Woodson began to smile.
“I think it’s great for our program, it’s fantastic that we’re back in the big dance.”
Of course, this is exactly the sort of thing Woodson said he was going to do when he was introduced as Indiana’s new head coach just under a year ago. He, who had played in multiple NCAA Tournament games under Bob Knight, was tasked with getting the program back, at the very least, to March Madness.
Woodson had been watching all those years from afar during his time in the NBA. He relished the successes and anguished over the losses as the fanbase did. He’d never coached a game in college, never had to recruit.
But he did it. Indiana was backed into a corner, needing Big Ten Tournament wins to have a shot. Friday’s win all but ensured the Hoosiers’ long-awaited return to the Big Dance. Woodson was sure to make sure everyone involved got the credit too.
“Today was another great effort on our ball club,” Woodson said in a postgame press conference. “I thought we made some damn good plays down the stretch to secure the win.”
There was Trayce Jackson-Davis, matched up against First Team All-Big Ten center Kofi Cockburn. Jackson-Davis managed just 6 points during Indiana’s 74-57 loss to Illinois on Feb. 5. This time was different, he didn’t fear the Illini’s monster in the middle.
With Cockburn breathing down his neck, he had multiple opportunities to kick the ball out to a shooter, let scoring be their problem. But no, he was gonna score, and the big man wasn’t gonna stop him.
“I was like, man, you’ve got to go out and play this guy and make him respect you,” Woodson said. “And I thought he did a hell of a job in that regard.”
It ended with Jackson-Davis scoring 21 points, the most he’s ever put up against the Illini. But he couldn’t have done so without some help.
And for that, the Hoosiers had Xavier Johnson, plucked from the transfer portal by Woodson to help run Indiana’s offense. But the Illini were well aware of what Johnson can bring to an offense, with Illinois head coach Brad Underwood referring to him as one of the most underrated guards in the Big Ten.
The Illini swarmed Johnson throughout the game, desperate to stop him from creating plays with Jackson-Davis or finding open shooters on the perimeter. He only shot a 5-15 clip from the field himself, but drew key fouls and sank three free throws to keep the Illini on their toes.
“I was just trying to get downhill and make other players better, because that’s one of my jobs, that’s one of my favorite jobs to do on this team,” Johnson said after the game.
But defense is a team effort. One player losing control of their assignment can lead to an easy score. The Hoosiers needed their entire lineup to lock in and keep the Illini away from the rim for force them into bad shots. Illinois finished the game shooting just 36% from the field, and was outscored in the paint 36-24.
All that could’ve been for naught. Illinois had 15 points off of free throws, and entered the final five minutes of the game with a 57-54 lead thanks to a 3-pointer from Coleman Hawkins. A shot like that can give a team momentum, enough for a run.
The Illini didn’t make a single field goal in the final five minutes.
Indiana locked in on defense when it needed to most, keeping Cockburn away from the rim and keeping Illinois’ shooters from getting a clean attempt.
“I know defense will win games if guys are committed to defending, rebounding the ball and that’s what we’ve been doing here as of late,” Woodson said.
When all was said and done, Indiana had won its second consecutive game. Woodson had doubled his predecessor’s Big Ten Tournament win total, and it only took him a year to do it.
Yes, the NCAA Tournament will be an exciting time. Selection Sunday will be broadcast on television, phone and tablet screens across Bloomington in two days’ time. But the Hoosiers aren’t done.
They didn’t pack for two days, two wins. They packed for four, and they’re in it to win it.
“Coach Woodson got us to believe,” Johnson said. “Everybody believes that we can win.”