Now that the men’s college basketball season is firmly in the rearview mirror and the dust has settled just about everywhere outside of Storrs it’s time to discuss a talking point from the year.
Indiana’s Xavier Johnson went down with a foot injury against Kansas and remained out for the rest of the season before applying for, and receiving, an injury waiver. He’ll be back on the court in 2023-24.
The Hoosiers spent some time trying to find their way without him, who’d take that starting spot? It was a tossup between Trey Galloway and Tamar Bates with the lineup switching here and there, though Galloway ultimately emerged in that role.
The first few games after that were against Elon and Kennesaw State, easy wins to settle in that were uncomfortable at times, before a slump to open Big Ten play. Indiana ultimately put things together starting with a win over Wisconsin, but those early losses weighed heavily as the season went on.
Johnson’s absence left freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino as Indiana’s primary ballhandler, which sped up his development to boost his NBA draft stock. He went from being projected as a late first rounder or possible second rounder to getting picked 17th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Indiana’s 12-8 record in the Big Ten, which included a 2-0 sweep of rival and conference champion Purdue, was good enough to tie for second in the league. Much of that, including both wins over the Boilermakers, wouldn’t have been possible without Hood-Schifino.
So, does Indiana’s emergence with Hood-Schifino running the offense mean they were a better team without Johnson? This is an argument that cropped up, typically from those outside Indiana’s fanbase/media and the answer is a very obvious “no”.
Indiana’s guard depth was questionable throughout the year, there’s a reason why Mike Woodson put both Galloway and Bates in the starting lineup. There wasn’t an automatic answer there until the former had settled into that role.
Without Johnson, Indiana’s guard depth was all but nonexistent. Only Galloway and Hood-Schifino displayed enough abilities handling the ball to inspire confidence. Bates entered a slump that he never left throughout the season, eventually culminating in a transfer to Mizzou.
Had either of those two been out with an injury, even for one game, Indiana would’ve been in serious trouble.
Then there was the topic of Indiana not living up to preseason expectations. Most serious people who predicted Indiana as the preseason Big Ten favorite did so with the caveat that it said more about the conference than the Hoosiers.
The league was a mystery without a clear frontrunner as Indiana was the most prominent team to return its centerpiece. Kofi Cockburn, Johnny Davis, Jaden Ivey and E.J. Liddell among others had moved on. Zach Edey truly emerged as the focal point of Purdue’s offense without Ivey.
And much of Indiana’s internal promise was that the starting backcourt would have two capable ballhandlers, Johnson and Hood-Schifino, with defensive prowess and a third, Galloway on the bench to relieve either.
Johnson’s experience and all-around effort on both ends of the floor combined with Hood-Schifino’s sheer skill and high ceiling looked like it could be the best backcourt in a conference that isn’t exactly known for guard play. Look how an experienced backcourt worked out for Northwestern.
Instead Galloway had to assume much of that responsibility, rising to the occasion especially on defense. On offense, however, he could be inconsistent. He had a few double-digit scoring games against Michigan State, Illinois, and both matchups against Purdue but they were mixed with outings wherein he scored just once or twice.
He would’ve been an ideal sixth man off the bench. Instead, he had to replace Johnson’s 9.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists by himself.
It’s great that Trayce Jackson-Davis, who led the team in assists per game (!) with 4, took the strides he did as a playmaker in his senior season. He wasn’t just looking to dump the ball off, instead finding a teammate made open by his own double-team.
The Hoosiers of two years ago, 2021-22, were defined by starting two catch and shoot guys, Miller Kopp and Parker Stewart, that ultimately hindered motion in the offense and caused spacing issues. That wouldn’t have been a problem with a more developed duo of Johnson and Hood-Schifino.
That’ll likely be less of an issue next season with freshman Gabe Cupps having additional time to develop and learn behind Johnson and Galloway from the bench.
Yes, Indiana ultimately put things together and was a good team in 2022-23, but Johnson’s availability could’ve and likely would’ve raised the Hoosiers’ ceiling.
Saying they were better without him is unserious.