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As Trayce Jackson-Davis’ record-setting Indiana career ended, his legacy took its place

The final game for Trayce Jackson-Davis in an Indiana Hoosiers uniform embodied what defined IU teams throughout his career.

Jackson-Davis battled like a warrior. And he didn’t get enough help.

Fourth-seeded Indiana men’s basketball saw its 2022-23 season end in unceremonious fashion on Sunday, with an 85-69 loss to No. 5 seed Miami (Fla.) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers enjoyed their most successful campaign in seven years, but couldn’t reach the second weekend of March Madness.

Indiana had a size advantage over Miami. But the Hurricanes threw everything they had at Jackson-Davis, as if to dare another Hoosier to beat them. And outside of a few stretches, that didn’t happen. IU’s guards often struggled with poor shot selection, and missed too many of the quality looks they did attempt.

Still, Jackson-Davis fought, through double-teams, triple-teams, varying schemes — anything the undersized Hurricanes could do to slow him, they tried. And that limited his touches at times. But he still shot 7 for 10 from the field and 9 for 11 on free throws, scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and swatted five blocks.

“It hurts, because of all the things that (Jackson-Davis) has done,” junior Trey Galloway said. “(The seniors) put so much into this. It hurts us, because we want to keep going for them. They’re our seniors; they fought so hard for us; we’re battling together every day in practice, and stuff that goes unseen. It just hurts that we can’t have the outcome we want.”

But, with time, the frustration of this loss will subside, and Jackson-Davis’ full body of work at IU will become the more lasting memory. And that legacy depicts one of the greatest players to ever don the cream and crimson.

Jackson-Davis will live on in Indiana’s record book for a long time. He’s IU’s all-time leading shot-blocker (270) and rebounder (1,143). He finished third on the program’s all-time scoring list with 2,258 career points — and he’s just the sixth Hoosier to top 2,000.

He’d already enjoyed a great career when he completed his junior season a year ago. And Jackson-Davis still managed to reach another level this season. While Purdue’s Zach Edey won Big Ten Player of the Year and dominated the National Player of the Year discourse for most of the season, TJD was deservedly in the conversation for both.

Jackson-Davis scored 670 points this year, 10th-most in a single season in IU history. He finished fourth in single-season rebounding, with 346. And his 92 blocks placed third in program history, and fourth in the nation this year.

And above all, Jackson-Davis was the heart, soul, and lifeblood of the best Indiana men’s basketball team since Yogi Ferrell graduated.

He was this group’s unquestioned leader. When IU was on the verge of letting its season spiral out of control in January, he called a players-only meeting to refocus his teammates. And the ensuing three-game stretch was Indiana’s best of the year.

It wasn’t enough for Jackson-Davis to be one of the best players in the country. He wanted to take his teammates and his fans along for the ride. The Assembly Hall student section adored Jackson-Davis in a way it has for few others in modern program history, as his “raise the roof” celebration swept over the crowd during nearly every home game.

“It’s really special to me to have the Indiana fans on your back and cheering for you and giving them hope. It’s something that this program hasn’t had in a while,” Jackson-Davis said. “I just thought it was really cool to be part of that and be part of that experience.”

Jackson-Davis joined the Hoosiers when they’d already missed three straight NCAA Tournaments for just the second time since the early 1970s. He arrived in Bloomington to a fan base starving for any tangible success.

He nearly helped deliver it as a freshman, as the Hoosiers had a chance to make the tournament in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted its cancelation. But after a disappointing 2021, IU needed a change. And Scott Dolson replaced Archie Miller with Mike Woodson.

Under Woodson’s tutelage, Jackson-Davis made significant strides on the court, and Indiana finally returned to the NCAA Tournament after a six-year absence.

What held that team back from further success was the same thing that plagued IU in Miller’s final two years, and against Miami on Sunday: TJD was left with too much to do and not enough help.

And it was rare for him to be truly unable to handle anything, especially as a senior. Because Trayce Jackson-Davis put the 2022-23 Indiana Hoosiers on his back in so many ways.

He played through a sprained thumb at the beginning of the season, and back issues cost him three games in November and December. And in the lone game of those three against a capable opponent — eventual ASUN champions Kennesaw State — Indiana had trouble with its star on the sideline.

Jackson-Davis didn’t spend much time on the bench this season, but when he did, Indiana looked like an entirely different team. Those were spells for IU to survive, not thrive.

It’s fitting that he played 39 minutes in his final appearance as a Hoosier. Jackson-Davis played at least that much in nine games this season. Most of that came in a stretch from late January to mid-February, when he did it in seven out of eight games.

The senior rarely showed signs of tiring despite the heavy workload. He continued dominating — if not playing even better. The concern was never about whether Jackson-Davis would sustain his high level while playing so much; it was more about whether it would physically break him.

But between Race Thompson’s midseason injury troubles and other depth pieces turning out less consistently reliable than initially hoped, Woodson didn’t have another choice that would preserve IU’s chances at wins. He was confident Jackson-Davis could handle the physical toll of all that playing time, and he wasn’t shy that he’d continue to ride him as the centerpiece of his team.

And Jackson-Davis not only held up — he excelled. He displayed greatness so frequently, and so emphatically, that it became an expectation. Opponents — like Miami — could spend 40 minutes attempting to slow him down, and he’d still, somehow, end up with big numbers. Even in one of his worst individual performances of the year, when IU defeated Purdue at Mackey Arena, he still came close to a triple-double.

“He’s meant a lot to this program. I don’t think we’re sitting here today if it wasn’t for Trayce Jackson-Davis,” Woodson said. “He could have left two days after I got the job, but he decided to stay on board. He worked his butt off. I pushed him on and off the court. A lot of nights and days, it wasn’t pretty for him, but he got better. He benefited from it, and our team benefited from it.”

Some will view Jackson-Davis’ Indiana legacy with complication. His statistics undoubtedly place him among the best players in program history. But the players he accompanies in that realm all won more, and many contributed to Assembly Hall’s famed banners.

But even as recently as Ferrell, Indiana basketball was in a different place within the Big Ten and the national landscape than it was when Jackson-Davis arrived. And college basketball at large was entirely different, in the time before NIL.

No, TJD’s Indiana didn’t add to any banners on the south end of Assembly Hall nor add new ones on the north side. But as he and Woodson led the Hoosiers out of a dry spell like few others in program history, when IU’s rabid fan base craved any reason to believe again, he delivered memorable moments in meaningful games.

Jackson-Davis is leaving Indiana basketball a better place than it was when he arrived.

In some ways, unfairly, his legacy will depend on what happens once he’s gone. If the Hoosiers regress without him, and their consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances end up a fluke instead of a trend, his efforts may be viewed in a different light.

But if Indiana men’s basketball continues to progress towards consistent relevancy and increased postseason success, Trayce Jackson-Davis will be remembered as the player who laid the foundation for its next great era.