Hoosier Men’s Hoops: Looking ahead to Conference Play

Xavier Johnson, Indiana Men's Basketball (Photo by Porter Binks/Getty Images).
Xavier Johnson, Indiana Men's Basketball (Photo by Porter Binks/Getty Images). /

A little over a year ago, the (then) 10th ranked Indiana Hoosiers traveled to New Jersey with a ton of confidence to kick off Big Ten play at Rutgers. At the conclusion of that game, they traveled back to B-Town with a surplus of disappointment. The Scarlet Knights absolutely ran them off the court, and just like that a team carrying loads of forward momentum had taken a major step backwards. In spite of this, they prevailed onward and finished the season with a 12-8 record in conference play. That may not have been the type of outcome that HoosierNation was seeking a season ago, but at the end of the day a season ago is a season ago.

Flash forward to the present, and there is a new set of troops preparing for the same inaugural conference clash. Luckily for the squad and fanbase alike, the 2023-2024 Big Ten opener will be held in Bloomington. Many know that the friendly confines of Assembly Hall adds an extra layer of advantage for the Hoosiers. The energy from the home crowd is infectious, and the players will feed off of the vibes from the stands in the same manner that the fans will feed off of their performance on the court. It is always good news when the team comes home to compete in front of the candy stripe faithful.

The bad news is that they may be without their heart and soul for this particular contest. After the hard fought rehabilitation battle he has endured throughout the 2023 calendar year, Xavier Johnson has been dealing with an unforeseen setback stemming from an apparent ankle injury during a recent matchup against Wright State. That setback lingered on into their last game versus Harvard, as he was a game-time decision leading up to tip-off. The sixth year point guard licked his wounds and gritted his teeth through nearly the full first half of that game before exiting just before halftime and never returning. As we await an update on his status, it is common sense that Johnson is going to do everything in his power to lace up his sneakers Friday evening. However, due to the magnitude of his injury a season ago, the training and coaching staff will surely exercise heavy caution in determining his availability. We would all love to have him out there each and every night, but it is important for fans to remain patient and understand that it is less about how things are going early in the season and more about how things are running later in the season. If the program decides to shut him down for Friday’s game, it will not only be for Xavier’s own good but the team’s own good collectively. The Hoosiers are going to need their leader out there as the dance floor draws nearer and nearer.

If the team is indeed without XJ for any amount of time, it will be the responsibility of the next man in line to step up. Expecting any of the other guards on the roster to completely fill that type of void would be unreasonable, but thankfully there are a few guys that look like they would be comfortable shouldering a bit more of the load.

The Hoosiers are stacked in the frontcourt, with Kel’el Ware and Malik Reneau standing out as the team’s top overall performers thus far in the season. Reneau is currently the top passer on the team based on the box scores, which is comforting when factoring in Johnson’s present situation. With or without their starting PG, those two are going to share mounds of responsibility as we press on into conference play. Beyond them, freshman Mackenzie Mgbako is coming off the best game in his young career. The hope is that he can carry that momentum forward and catapult himself back into the 2024 NBA draft’s first round discussion which he was so commonly apart of prior to the season’s start. And while Trey Galloway may not ever come up in NBA draft chatter, the team is going to need him now more than ever. He may not be lighting it up so far in his senior campaign, but his experience and presence on the floor is invaluable for such a relatively young team.

Aside from the five typical starters, there are a lot of question marks pertaining to the rest of the roster as we enter this portion of the schedule. Is true freshman Gabe Cupps ready to steer the reigns of the offense in Johnson’s absence if needed? Can the team hit enough outside shots to keep defenses honest? Who from Mike Woodson’s bench unit can be relied upon for quality minutes?

No game can be taken for granted in college basketball, regardless of the opponent. The Big Ten is unforgiving, and this upcoming schedule has the power to chew a team up and spit them out whole if taken lightly. Woodson and his staff will have their hands full in keeping the ship sailing through the conference gauntlet. Furthermore, there will be a lot of pressure on the players to go out there and produce wins. Friday night will be a major test for this Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team, but fortunately there will be a packed house at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall there to support them.