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Trayce Jackson-Davis: Roof Raiser, Home State Hero, Hoosier

Jackson-Davis will leave Indiana’s program far better than it was when he arrived.

Alex Paul

A new era of Indiana men’s basketball was dawning when Trayce Jackson-Davis first arrived in Bloomington four years ago.

Archie Miller, in his second season as the Hoosiers’ head coach, had previously landed the most talented in-state player to choose Indiana in over a decade: Romeo Langford. Miller had vowed to recruit the state heavily and keep the best Indiana prospects from leaving its borders.

He continued that mission with Jackson-Davis, a Mr. Basketball winner out of Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana.

Jackson-Davis was exactly the kind of player that was emphasized in Miller’s offense. With a lack of help from the guards around them, much of the weight for winning games fell on Indiana’s frontcourt and its ability to score in the post.

He started his Hoosiers career wearing No. 4 before switching over to his preferred No. 23 during his sophomore year, having missed out on an NCAA Tournament appearance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

That sophomore year happened to be Miller’s last in Bloomington as the Hoosiers collapsed down the stretch and Indiana was left looking for a new head coach just four years after making what initially looked like the hire to lead them into the future.

Caught in the middle of it all was Jackson-Davis.

In-state players have been a staple of Indiana’s program since the moment it began, in a way that’s meant more than other states. The list of names, now spoken of in awe of their abilities across the state, includes the likes of Kent Benson, Damon Bailey, Yogi Ferrell, Cody Zeller and Mike Woodson among countless others.

Jackson-Davis could easily add his name to that list, but that would mean putting some faith in the program and its next head coach. He’d attracted plentiful interest from programs like Michigan State and UCLA as a high schooler, he could easily leave and frankly you couldn’t blame him for doing so.

Indiana, as a program, was in shambles. Lost in a cycle of coach after coach and trying to find its way in an ever-changing landscape as one of the most historic, nationally venerated programs in the sport.

The NCAA Tournament had shunned the Hoosiers for years on end with no end to that streak in sight. It could be brief or a grueling, long-term process, but everyone knew yet another rebuild was on the horizon.

He’d already committed to the previous, ill-fated rebuild. Was he up for another? To help answer that question, in stepped one of those in-state program legends: Mike Woodson.

Wait, Mike Woodson?

Sure, he has more coaching experience than just about any other candidate... but that was all at the NBA level has an assistant and then head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. And it was a LOT of experience. Woodson is in his 60’s, a bit of a leap from the younger Miller, hired as an up and comer to hopefully lead the program for years or decades to come.

So, Indiana hired an NBA coach who’d never recruited, or even coached at all, at the collegiate level to lead the program back to success? Yes. As it turns out it was exactly what both Indiana and Jackson-Davis needed.

The latter was fully prepared to enter his name into the upcoming NBA Draft following the firing of Miller, but took a meeting with Woodson to at the very least hear what the coach had to say, which turned out to be what Jackson-Davis needed to hear.

He wasn’t ready. Woodson would know after all, with enough experience in NBA offices and on the court to know what the league looks for in prospects. There just wasn’t enough in Jackson-Davis’ game to justify using a draft pick on him. But what Woodson did see on film was potential, and laid out a plan for Jackson-Davis to get there.

With a firm endorsement of Woodson and his plan, Jackson-Davis announced his return to Bloomington to much fanfare across the Hoosiers’ fanbase.

That first season of the Woodson era turned out... interesting. Indiana’s new coach added some much-needed pieces around Jackson-Davis like point guard Xavier Johnson and a 3-point specialist in Miller Kopp.

But the late-season struggles that plagued the Hoosiers’ throughout the Miller era reared their head once more as the Hoosiers lost game after game down the stretch to fall further and further out of tournament contention until they were firmly in the bubble heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

There were no guarantees after the tournament, a true win or go home scenario. Indiana needed at least a win to strengthen its position heading into Selection Sunday. The Hoosiers looked to be heading for another lost season during a first half against Michigan which saw the Wolverines build a dominant lead. Time and again the Hoosiers did this, a season collapse in miniature at the worst time.

Then it wasn’t.

Powered by Johnson, Jackson-Davis and a crimson crowd, the Hoosiers stormed back to tie, claim the lead and finally the win. They followed that up by doing the same against Illinois just a day later before losing to Iowa on a near-buzzer beater in the semifinals.

Woodson, in one year, had collected more conference tournament wins than his predecessor. He’d snapped losing streaks to Illinois, Michigan and rival Purdue in a single season. Then on Selection Sunday, Jackson-Davis was given the opportunity to go dancing for the first time in his then three-year career.

This season presented a similar circumstance, albeit much earlier. Johnson, considered a key piece to Indiana’s 2022-23 hopes, went down with what has become a season-ending injury against Kansas before the Hoosiers got into the thick of Big Ten play.

Without an experienced had running the offense and with Jackson-Davis slightly hobbled, the Hoosiers began to falter. Losses to Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State left Indiana stumbling through its first slate of conference play.

Then, on and off the court, Jackson-Davis stepped up.

First it was leading a players-only meeting to get the Hoosiers in the right place mentally, then it was dominating the Badgers with the Assembly Hall crowd at his back. What could’ve been a spiral was instead a five game winning streak that put Jackson-Davis into Big Ten and National Player of the Year talk first among Indiana’s fanbase, then among the media.

There were detractors, of course. Purdue scoffed at the suggestion of Jackson-Davis supplanting Zach Edey, who was on his own dominant run leading the Boilermakers to a No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll.

So, in turn, Jackson-Davis led the Hoosiers to a sweep of the Boilers for the first time in a decade. He likely isn’t a threat to win either award, but did enough on the court during each matchup for two wins.

His game was taken to a new level under Woodson, allowed to leave his assignment to defend the paint and some new moves added to his bag in the post to become an even more dominant scorer.

Now Jackson-Davis finds himself here: a storied senior, owner of Indiana’s all-time blocking and rebounding records and as the fourth leading scorer all-time in program history.His legacy is cemented as a program great.

All he lacks from the others? A run in March Madness. He’ll have the opportunity to do so this month with Indiana poised for its best NCAA Tournament seed in years.

But numbers don’t fully tell the story of Jackson-Davis, who committed to his home state’s flagship program and ended up as the centerpiece for two rebuilds.

He didn’t need to stay twice, but he did. His name belongs among those fellow in-state legends, his story told for decades to come.

To not appreciate all he’s done up to this point would be an egregious error from Indiana. Whatever happens in the next month, it’s worth reflecting on and giving thanks for the career of one of the greatest to ever don the candy striped warmups on the court of Assembly Hall.