With just one final competition to go in 2023, it has been an up and down calendar year for the Indiana University men's basketball team. Things got off to a disappointing start to the year after a tough upset loss at Iowa in the team's first official game of 2023. Since taking that L, the squad has fought it's way to a cumulative record of 22-11 throughout the remainder of 2023 leading up to this Friday's game against Kennesaw State. That may not be the winning percentage many fans would have hoped for (22-12 total as of today), but there has been a lot which has factored into those results.
Following the team's defeat at the hands of Miami in the second round of the 2023 NCAA tournament, Mike Woodson and his staff had their work cut out in replenishing a very talented roster. The team lost crucial contributors Trayce-Jackson Davis, Miller Kopp and Race Thompson to graduation PLUS Jalen Hood-Schifino to the NBA PLUS Tamar Bates and Jordan Geronimo to the transfer wire. While it was tough to see those guys go, Hoosier Nation is always going to wish them well. And with guys like TJD and JHS currently suiting up in the NBA (with Kopp also delivering his normal sharpshooting in the NBA G League), those guys will always make Hoosier Nation proud.
With their departures came multiple voids for the coaching staff to fill for the 2023-2024 season. After the conclusion of 2022-2023, the outlook for this season's campaign was extremely bleak. That sense of uncertainty was at least partially washed away within the first two months of the offseason, as the program received a few bits of massive news. First it was the highly talented 7 footer Kel'el Ware announcing his intent to transfer to Indiana after a lousy freshman campaign at Oregon. Next, it was the NCAA's decision to grant Xavier Johnson a medical redshirt later on in April. Finally, it was the official commitment of highly-touted incoming freshman Mackenzie Mgbako in May. Just like that, the crystal ball looked a lot less dreadful in terms of the team's next steps.
As the offseason progressed, fans grew increasingly ecstatic for what the 2023-2024 Hoosiers could accomplish. Despite not earning a spot in the Top 25 to begin the campaign, there was a ton of optimism brewing in Bloomington. That overall sense of ongoing positivity had clearly extended it's reach further than just the fanbase, as Mike Woodson obtained his first commitment for the class of 2024 prior to the team's first official game this year. That commitment, made by 5-star swingman Liam McNeeley, represented yet another big step forward for the program in 2023. Regardless of how far the 2023-2024 Hoosiers can go, it is very refreshing to have a cornerstone piece waiting in the wings for 2024-2025.
The present team surely had high aspirations going into the season, even if it was unclear whether their 2nd highest rated incoming freshman (4-star guard Jakai Newton) would be able to take the floor at all in 2023-2024 as he continues to work his way back from a previous knee ailment. And after two lopsided victories in the annual opening exhibitions, it looked as though their goals for the season may be within reach (they still are). But after narrowly escaping mid-major Florida Gulf Coast (owners of one of the all-time greatest runs in NCAA tournament history) in it's official season opener AT HOME, the optimism which had been building was all-at-once tempered.
The team had a perfect opportunity to resurrect it's public confidence two weeks later in the Empire Classic, but failed miserably in an absolute drubbing versus the then 5th ranked UCONN. Dan Hurley's squad was simply too much for Woodson's Hoosiers to handle, and Indiana walked away from that battle licking it's wounds in preparation for the next challenge. They bounced back admirably, rattling off 4 straight impressive wins (Louisville, Harvard, Maryland, and Michigan) in a strong stretch of resilience.
Unfortunately during that strong stretch, the injury bug came to rain on the program's parade. Senior leader Xavier Johnson found himself back in the nurse's office during the team's November 26th win over Harvard. He suffered the injury late in the first half of that particular game, and we have yet to see him return to the court since. What is more concerning is that there is no exact timetable for his return to action. We may not see the floor general on the floor again in 2023, but we remain positive in regards to what he can do for us upon returning. His loss was very unforeseen, and the hope is for him to get back to doing what he does best ASAP.
On the topic of unforeseen losses, the Hoosiers followed up that solid span of play with a forgetful performance at Auburn on December 9th. Bruce Pearl and the Tigers are by no means an easy opponent, but it was largely disappointing to hit such a bump in the road while riding such a wave of momentum. A road win in that one would have undoubtedly yielded endless confidence heading into the biggest game of the season with national number 2 Kansas arriving in Bloomington just a week later. Despite beloved senior Trey Galloway's greatest efforts to ground the Jayhawks, Indiana was also unable to come away from that clash victorious. But while a loss is a loss and moral victories are never as fulfilling as actual victories, that wire-to-wire game was a testament to the greatness that is Indiana basketball.
Unfortunately, the hangover produced from that heartbreaking defeat seemingly lingered on into the team's next contest AT HOME against Morehead State. On paper, this appeared to be what should have been an easy win for the team. In reality, they had to scratch and claw their way to the final buzzer in order to earn a W. It was another case of the old "one step forward, two steps back" cliche. Thankfully, the Hoosiers more or less re-gained a step in the right direction with the win over North Alabama in their most recent game from last week. We pray that they can now avoid the seemingly inevitable backwards step(s) which have accompanied most of their moments of forward progress throughout the calendar year.
2023 was a bit of a rollercoaster ride for this program, but there is a lot for Hoosier fans to look forward to in 2024. And if the ongoing ride ventures us into any more low points next year, we must always recall that this is still one of the greatest college basketball programs in NCAA history.