clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Indiana men’s basketball: Why an experienced backcourt matters

The Hoosiers’ best asset this season may be their starting backcourt.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Robert Scheer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last week, Mike Woodson officially named his two captains for the upcoming 2023-24 men’s basketball season: Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway.

The two are likely to be Indiana’s leaders both on and off the court, with the former returning from an injury and the latter coming off of an impressive season as a full-time starter. Beyond that, they’ll likely make up Indiana’s starting backcourt.

Johnson is entering his sixth year of college basketball, Galloway his fourth. That level of experience is important in determining a team’s floor. What sticks out first about this pairing is its defensive potential. Both Johnson and Galloway are excellent, high-motor on-ball defenders.

Players and Woodson alike have long mentioned Galloway’s drive, which can uplift the team. He was pivotal in limiting Purdue’s freshman backcourt duo during the Hoosiers’ win in Mackey Arena last season, keeping both Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer uncomfortable on their own home court.

Woodson doubled down on how much the loss of Xavier Johnson limited Indiana last season, and he was right. Indiana didn’t have a great third option to handle the ball in the backcourt after Galloway and missed his defense.

Jalen Hood-Schifino was a capable defender, but he lacked Johnson’s overall experience, particularly in Big Ten play. That’s just not replaceable. He was a key factor in Indiana’s road win over Xavier last year for his play on both ends.

The thing with Johnson is that the good can be mixed with some bad. Questionable passes, shots and the like are just part of what you’ll get. They should be less in year six, but the good has outweighed the bad.

The experience in the backcourt, especially defensively, was a blueprint followed by Northwestern in its breakthrough season. Boo Buie and Chase Audige were both seniors, the latter having sat out his first season at Northwestern to comply with NCAA transfer rules at the time.

Buie was a capable defender and Northwestern’s No. 1 option offensively at lead guard with 17.3 points per game. Audige was the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the league.

Obvious differences being that Johnson has never been the go-to guy on offense at Indiana with Trayce Jackson-Davis on the floor and Audige had a significantly higher usage rate (25.6%) than Galloway (12.4%) on offense.

There’s room to grow for both. Johnson will look to limit those negative plays and knock the rust off from a season spent largely on the bench while Galloway’s offensive game could round out a bit more, particularly with more attempts from 3-point range.

Galloway’s shooting form noticeably improved ahead of last season and he hit 30 of his 65 attempts (46.2%). With Miller Kopp and Hood-Schifino out of the picture, that volume could increase. And don’t discount Johnson (36/94 in 2021-22 and 10/27 in 2022-23) from the perimeter.

Finally, to put it bluntly, Indiana will be older, bigger and stronger in the backcourt than most teams next season. Having dudes in their early 20s playing ball against freshmen/sophomores is an obvious gulf of experience and conditioning.

Age is a winning formula across college sports. The oldest team in last year’s Sweet 16 was San Diego State and the Aztecs made it all the way to the title game with their defense-first mentality. Providence’s average age back in 2021-22 (hey, Al Durham) was an incredible 23.3, and that squad made it to the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual national champion Kansas.

That experience will be absolutely necessary when it comes to Indiana’s frontcourt, with is full of freshmen and sophomores like Kel’el Ware, Malik Reneau, Mackenzie Mgbako and Kaleb Banks.

There’s a reason Indiana’s staff went out and got Anthony Walker and Payton Sparks. Walker has been on a Final Four roster, knows what it takes to get there, and is eager to be a leadership presence in the frontcourt. Sparks has seen plenty of physical play and will be able to handle the Big Ten’s style.

Both are experienced and provide additional leadership to the team.

Lastly, this is why Johnson getting an eligibility waiver was so important for Indiana. They’d have likely sought out an experienced guard in the portal had he been denied, but having a guy with experience in the Big Ten was critical given how much youth is in the frontcourt.