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‘Let’s Dance’: Indiana men’s basketball looks forward after falling to Iowa 80-77

Selection Sunday is just over 24 hours away. Indiana is ready.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Indiana vs Iowa Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

All of this truly started last March.

Indiana had just fired Archie Miller, whose four-year stay in Bloomington yielded no NCAA Tournament berths. Miller’s Hoosiers came close in 2020, but the Big Dance was canceled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A six-game losing streak, ending with a quick exit in the Big Ten Tournament at the hands of Rutgers, spelled doom for both Indiana’s tournament hopes and Miller’s employment.

The energy had been sapped out of Cook Hall, around Bloomington and across the state. Trayce Jackson-Davis said Indiana was in the dark. The very life had been sucked out of the Hoosiers, who entered the transfer portal in droves.

Scott Dolson, the successor to Fred Glass, was forced to make one of if not the most critical of decisions in the opening months of his time as Indiana’s Athletic Director.

Names began to fly through the fanbase, the Hoosier faithful searching for someone who could at the very least get them back to playing meaningful games in March. Chris Beard, Eric Musselman, Thad Matta, even long-coveted Indiana native Brad Stevens, who was quite comfortable in the NBA.

But Dolson kept his cards close to his chest. There were few, if any, substantial leaks seeping through the program. No favorite, no clear, attainable candidate, not a credible peep.

Dolson knew what success looked like at Indiana, he had a front row seat as a student manager under Bob Knight in the 1980’s. Those were the highest of the highs, but Indiana couldn’t get back there by staring longingly at the five banners fading over its shoulder.

The history helps, but the game has changed. A flashier, more appealing style of basketball had taken hold around the country. The kind that gives recruits visions of the bright lights of NBA arenas.

If Indiana wanted to get back to its winning ways, it was going to need to embrace its past and play for its future, Dolson knew that. But there was something more to it. With energy at a historic low and players in the transfer portal, Dolson also needed someone to repair the program’s very culture.

He’d been in conversations about his candidates with figures in both the professional and collegiate ranks and those in the Indiana community as he sought out the answer. One in particular got the same sentiment from all he asked:

“You’ll never find a better person than Mike Woodson.”

Woodson knew about success at Indiana as well as anyone, playing a part in it from 1976-80. He’d been in the NBA coaching ranks for years, with stints as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks.

Suddenly, Dolson found himself with a candidate who checked off every box. Woodson could embrace Indiana’s history, play a more modern style with his NBA background, and had the right type of personality to breathe life back into the program.

One flight to New York City later, and Woodson was introduced as the 30th head coach in program history at a press conference on March. 29. He gave his thanks and laid out his vision, but there was work ahead.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Step one: Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Jackson-Davis was set to have him move onto the NBA Draft and hire an agent. But he was going to meet with Woodson first, give Indiana’s new head coach a chance.

That meeting was what changed things. Woodson, and all of his NBA experience, told him everything he was doing wrong. Missed shots and the reluctance to take them, it didn’t make for a good NBA resume.

Jackson-Davis was the first piece of the puzzle. Once he announced he was staying, his fellow Hoosiers began to exit the transfer portal, opting to remain in Bloomington. Indiana ultimately lost Al Durham to Providence and Armaan Franklin to Virginia.

It wasn’t a complete team, players from the same roster that had missed the tournament for all those years under Miller. Woodson reached into the transfer portal, seeking reliable, experienced players for his new system.

He pulled out Xavier Johnson, a starting point guard from Pittsburgh to help run the team’s offense. Then he landed Tamar Bates from high school at the last minute, ending his first recruiting jaunt on a high note.

Players were in the gym for shootarounds, excited to meet their new coach and, finally, having fun playing basketball again.

The Woodson era of Indiana basketball had begun

***

One year later, Indiana found itself in a remarkably similar situation as it had the previous March. The Hoosiers had lost seven of their final nine games, and needed a run, or even just one win, in the Big Ten Tournament if they wanted to go dancing.

It could’ve happened again, their energy could have left them entirely as they went back into the darkness from whence they came. A 17 point deficit with 13 minutes remaining against Michigan seemed like proof positive that this was the case.

Indiana fans, online and in the stands, voiced their thoughts throughout the season. They’d booed Johnson during the Crossroads Classic, criticized Jackson-Davis for a stretch of poor play and said Indiana simply lacked the fight it needed to win the games that matter.

No. This team was different from the one which walked off the court at last year’s tournament to boos from the cream and crimson-clad spectators in the stands.

And the Hoosiers were ready to prove it.

They held Michigan to zero field goals for an 11-minute stretch of play in which they reclaimed the lead, stunning the Wolverines back to Ann Arbor. The points mostly came from Johnson and Jackson-Davis, but the defense was a team effort.

One win. Good, but not enough to keep the Hoosiers away from the edge of their seat on Selection Sunday. For that, they needed something more. A statement that this time was better than its record showed.

They found it in No. 1-seed Illinois.

Indiana played with the same fire it’d found in the second half against Michigan, holding Illinois without a field goal in the final five minutes of the game. With that, their ticket to March Madness was all but punched.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Indiana vs Illinois Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Each win ended with Hoosiers celebrating on the bench, in the stands and the court, at the buzzer. Locker room celebrations were had, Indiana’s players brimming with energy as one. In postgame press conferences, players spoke of Woodson and his belief in them, as a team and as individuals.

But their run wasn’t over, the Iowa Hawkeyes and their Big Ten leading offense awaited the Hoosiers in the semifinal round. Indiana held Iowa, which had scored 112 points against Northwestern on Thursday, to 80.

It was one final shot, a prayer, from Jordan Bohannon that ended Indiana’s run. Just the most March moment imaginable for the Hawkeyes.

Indiana had gotten theirs, two in fact. The most wins Indiana has had in the Big Ten Tournament since 2003. Enough, again, to send them back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2016.

After falling to Iowa, Woodson acknowledged Indiana’s miscues down the stretch that ultimately led to its defeat. But in the same breath, he made sure to recognize what his players had done to get here in the first place.

“I’m so thrilled and happy with our ball club and the way we compete,” Woodson said.

In one final tweet Saturday, Jackson-Davis summed up how the Hoosiers feel at this moment heading into tomorrow: