Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes look to lead IU into a new era

Indiana women’s basketball will look different this year.

The Hoosiers lost a foundational core last season when Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, and Aleksa Gulbe graduated. Patberg, especially, was a natural leader on the floor and graduated as the program’s all-time winningest player.

It’s not easy to replace a group that won as much as those three did. That’s a challenge Teri Moren and her staff attacked in the spring, by adding three transfers. Some useful pieces off the bench return, potentially in more prominent roles. Some of the four-woman freshman class could see playing time.

But the main reason IU is in position to sustain its momentum is its two All-American returnees: guard Grace Berger and forward Mackenzie Holmes.

They’re two of the most prolific players in program history. And now, they step into even bigger leadership roles than they had before, on a team with a lot of new faces.

“I think the main thing with us is just showing them — the transfers and freshmen — how we do things. And it’s different than years past because we don’t have as many returners with a lot of experience,” Berger said at IU’s media day. “Me and Mackenzie are the ones that have been here the longest and kind of know what coach Moren wants. So I think (we are) just holding everyone to the same standards we always have.”

Berger and Holmes helped set those standards high. The Hoosiers will certainly open the season ranked in the Preseason AP Top 25 for the fourth consecutive year. IU could open in the top 10 for the second year in a row. The Hoosiers are coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, with an Elite Eight in 2020-21.

IU is one of the favorites to win the Big Ten this year.

Success to that degree was once unimaginable for Indiana women’s basketball. But it’s become the program standard.

“It’s one thing to climb. It’s another thing to sustain,” Moren said. “We’re pretty clear on that in the recruiting process, what our expectations are, and how we want to continue to build off the success. But there’s still more that we want to accomplish. We have goals that we have yet to accomplish, like winning the Big Ten championship.”

If Indiana reaches that goal, Berger and Holmes will have a lot to do with it.

Berger is tied with Patberg in career wins at IU, and is on pace to reach No. 2 on IU’s all-time scoring list this year (she’d need 834 points to pass Tyra Buss at the top, so that’s not realistic). She was named an All-American Honorable Mention last season, along with All-Big Ten first team, after placing 12th in IU history in single-season points (535) and tying for sixth in single-season assists (154).

Her mid-range game is one of the top weapons in women’s college basketball — it’s so good that it makes her great passing ability feel underrated.

“She’s been such a significant part of why we’ve had the success we’ve had,” Moren said. “If anybody continues to remind me that we still have a lot of goals that we haven’t accomplished yet, it’s Grace. If you ask Grace, we haven’t done much. I love that about her because of her competitiveness and the spirit she has. She obviously has left a mark, but I think she has her sights set on still winning a championship here.”

Holmes was an All-American Honorable Mention as a sophomore in 2020-21, and she was on a similar track as a junior last year. But then she suffered a knee injury in January, missed eight games, and wasn’t the same upon returning.

Holmes had limited mobility in her knee when she came back, and lacked the conditioning to be able to handle a full workload right away. But she came back in the middle of a stretch of five games in 10 days, so IU had no time to get her into a normal practice and rebuild her conditioning.

That was a major reason for IU coming up just short of a Big Ten regular season title last year, and it impacted Indiana in postseason play.

“The one thing that you can never control is injuries. Mackenzie Holmes, (we lost) her for a large part of the season, and once Mack (came back), she wasn’t quite 100 percent,” Moren said. “In retrospect, if Mack would have been 100 percent healthier, could we have won a Big Ten championship? I think we could have.”

Holmes is healthy, now, and will return to a critical role for the Hoosiers. She’s already third in program history with 150 career blocks, and she has a chance to move into second this year. Holmes could also enter the top 10 in both points and rebounds this season.

Indiana’s winning formula relies heavily on playing through Holmes in the post. She’s a good passer and sets up teammates on cuts or for outside shots, and she’s a very efficient shooter.

This year’s team could have more balance than previous years, with improved 3-point shooting, and more depth as well. But despite the additions and subtractions, IU’s success or failure this season will rest with familiar faces.

Berger and Holmes form one of the top tandems in the Big Ten, and perhaps the country. They’re two of the best players IU’s ever had. And now, they’re responsible for carrying the torch for Indiana women’s basketball from one era into another.

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