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Why improved depth could lead Indiana basketball back to NCAA tournament

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BLOOMINGTON — Indiana basketball coach Mike Woodson learned a hard lesson about roster building when his team missed out on the NCAA tournament last season. 

The Hoosiers simply didn’t have the depth to compete in the Big Ten. 

That thought informed Woodson’s approach as he went into the offseason with seven open scholarships, but not a single signee or verbal commitment.

“I just didn’t want to get caught in that position again,” Woodson said, before an NIL-related event at Huber’s Orchard and Winery on May 29. “I didn’t think we had to this season after guys we saw in the portal that we liked and once we got involved, they seemed to like us.”

More: How Indiana’s Mike Woodson went about building one of nation’s top-ranked transfer classes

Indiana coach Mike Woodson’s big bet on Xavier Johnson

Woodson’s vision for IU last season went out the window at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Nov. 26. 

Starting point guard Xavier Johnson left a 89-76 win over Harvard with an ankle injury that he spent much of the month trying to play through. While the injury was unrelated to the one that limited him to just 11 games in 2022-23, he ended up sitting out until early January.  

By the time he fully recovered, Johnson suffered an elbow injury that cost him six games. His minutes mostly went to true freshman Gabe Cupps both times. 

“We really counted on Xavier to be back after all his injuries,” Woodson said. “We just thought we had him back.”

Woodson didn’t think it was that risky of a bet going into the season considering Johnson was one of the most experienced guards in the country (126 career starts), hadn’t missed a game due to injury through his first four-plus years of college and ran IU’s offense at a high level, but he just couldn’t stay in the lineup. 

He made just 13 starts and only played 30 minutes eight times. Two of those games came in the Big Ten tournament with Trey Galloway sidelined. Galloway spent long stretches of the season playing out of position as the team’s primary ball-handler. 

Woodson was again complimentary of how Cupps and Galloway handled the unexpected developments, but didn’t sugarcoat the impact of Johnson’s injuries. 

“It crushed us,” Woodson said. “We never really rebounded from it. We were playing catch up and having to mix and match.”

More: Indiana basketball guard Trey Galloway not fully cleared ahead of summer workouts

Mike Woodson: “One thing I have learned, we got to be deeper in certain positions” 

Indiana’s problems went beyond just Johnson’s injuries though.

Woodson acknowledged the team’s overall lack of depth was an issue when Kel’el Ware was out of the lineup (foot) in losses to Wisconsin and Illinois. 

Malik Reneau and Mackenzie Mgbako accounted for 55.3% of the team’s offense during the two-game stretch (78 points) while IU’s bench scored 12 total points.

“You got to put pieces around them,” Woodson said, at Huber. “They can’t do it themselves, we showed some of that at different times of the season last year. We needed more pieces around them.”

Indiana’s most productive bench player last season was Anthony Walker, who averaged 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 rebounds per game (14.1 minutes). The Hoosiers remaining bench players — CJ Gunn, Kaleb Banks and Payton Sparks — all entered the transfer portal after the season.

Woodson hopes the all the “really good players” he signed this offseason will give IU’s bench some added punch.

According to 247 Sports composite rankings, Indiana signed three of the top 25 rated transfers in the country — Arizona center Oumar Ballo (No. 2), Stanford guard Kanaan Carlyle (No. 16) and Washington State guard Myles Rice (No. 25) — as well as the No. 28 overall recruit out of the high school ranks with small forward Bryson Tucker. 

It’s a group Woodson believes gives him more playmaking ability and flexibility, and one that won’t sink or swim based on the availability of one player. 

“I’m pleased with the guys we brought in, I just got to put it to work,” Woodson said, with a wide smile. 

Michael Niziolek is the Indiana beat reporter for The Bloomington Herald-Times. You can follow him on X @michaelniziolek and read all his coverage by clicking here.

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