When Indiana men’s basketball hired Mike Woodson back in 2021, the subject of his age was among the chief topics of discussion.
The Hoosiers’ head coach turned 65 back in March. Afterward, he hit the recruiting trail fresh off of knee surgery to rebuild a roster that’d just lost four of its starters and multiple bench players.
And he’s taking some big swings.
Indiana had to beat out Bill Self and Kansas for a late commitment from Mackenzie Mgbako, a top-10 forward out of New Jersey who is among the highest rated recruits in program history.
A slow build was never really in the cards for Woodson, as he explained during the program’s media day this past week. Asked about teambuilding, he had a quick answer:
“I don’t want to wait,” Woodson said. “My clock is ticking. I want everything this year.”
Everything meaning not just a Big Ten title, but another national championship banner to join the five that loom overhead on Assembly Hall gamedays. it’s all he thinks about as a coach.
That takes talent, and Woodson has brought some into Bloomington during the past two years.
Of Indiana’s top-10 highest-rated recruits in program history, four have signed under Woodson’s watch. He’s continuing to take big swings heading into 2024 as well.
Woodson expects big things from Mgbako this season, but doesn’t want to put too much pressure on him as a freshman. It’s up to the staff to put him in the best position to be successful.
“There’s a lot that’s got to be done between now and the time we step out on the floor against Marian and start playing actual basketball, but Mackenzie is a big part to the puzzle. That’s why we went and recruited him,” Woodson said.
Ware’s one year at Oregon carried accusations of low-motor play or an outright lackadaisical attitude. He was benched as the season wore on, ultimately averaging 6.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.5 assists on the year.
Woodson was aware of this.
“The word is out,” he said. “They knocked you and said ‘hey, you’re lazy, you don’t work hard,’ and if you make a commitment to me, that’s got to change.”
He went on to say that, while he isn’t the easiest coach to play for, he’ll be in his players’ corner and be fair. Ware will have to move forward and leave Eugene in the past, Woodson said.
“The beauty about this summer, a lot of these guys, they stuck around and they put in the work, especially CJ and Kaleb Banks,” Woodson said. “I’m expecting more out of them. They’re not freshmen anymore. I need more. We need it as a ballclub.”
Then there’s captains Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway, Indiana’s likely starters in the backcourt and leaders on and off the court. Johnson is returning from an injury that cost him the bulk of the 2022-23 season and Galloway enters his senior season primed for his best year after a bit of a breakout.
Woodson will lean on both for their experience throughout the season to keep things steady.
It’s all an interesting combination that leads to plenty of questions for Indiana. The talent is there to make some noise in the Big Ten and potentially the NCAA Tournament, but will the pieces work together?
On style of play, Woodson was mum aside from pointing out that the Hoosiers utilized the pick-and-roll with Trayce Jackson-Davis more often than it likely looked from the outside last season.
Players like Ware and Mgbako offer some range with their size and 3-point shooting, and Johnson has plenty of experience playing alongside a dominant big in the aforementioned Jackson-Davis.
As said, they’ll need jumps from the sophomores. Banks will likely take strides as an all-around player, Gunn has been working on perimeter shooting and Reneau will look to be a scoring threat in the post while playing more soundly on defense.
One way or another, Woodson will look to get them ready to play together.
“I took this job to win Big Ten titles and national titles and I’ve fallen short the first two years,” he said. “I’m always optimistic as a coach when I go into a season. This season is no different.”