BLOOMINGTON — After Indiana men’s basketball lost at Nebraska, head coach Mike Woodson didn’t mince words with his backcourt.
The Hoosiers were blown out in Lincoln on Wednesday, and their guard play was one of the biggest reasons why. In the postgame press conference, Woodson said his starting guards — Trey Galloway and Xavier Johnson — were “awful,” and that the Cornhuskers’ backcourt wholly outplayed them.
Woodson doubled down on Johnson, specifically, during Friday’s Zoom media availability. Woodson again called the sixth-year’s performance “awful.”
Indiana’s backcourt heeded the message and responded on Saturday against Ohio State. The group turned in a crucial effort to help IU to a 71-65 win at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Johnson, particularly, was in total control in his second game back after missing seven straight contests with a foot injury. He played just 14 minutes in Lincoln, but Woodson told him during Saturday’s shootaround that he’d see more action against the Buckeyes. And he capitalized.
“I was definitely motivated,” Johnson said after the game. “I haven’t been myself lately. I’ve been off for a month, so I was trying to find a rhythm in that game. I was doing a little bit too much on the offensive end. Tonight I let the game come to myself. I trusted my coaching staff, trusted my teammates to make the right play.”
Johnson shot 4 for 9 from the field and 2 for 2 from 3-point range for 18 points, and he dished three assists with no turnovers. This was only his second game without a turnover since he transferred to Indiana ahead of the 2021-22 season.
His physical and mental quickness are the strongest components of his game, and they were on full display Saturday. Johnson, on so many occasions, used that speed to slice open the Ohio State defense and create opportunities both for himself and for teammates. That helped him regularly get to the foul line, where he shot 8 for 11. IU sorely missed that playmaking ability while he nursed the broken foot.
CJ Gunn praised Johnson’s presence from the sideline while injured, but is happy to simply have him back on the court again.
“He’s been working hard every single day,” Gunn said. “He’s hungry for this and we’re counting on him. Even though he was out with his injury we were here to pick him up. He’s our captain, our guard, so we all look to him for leadership, and he’s done an absolutely amazing role doing that. He is going to help us lead us through this Big Ten (season) and hopefully win the championship.”
Gunn had a strong night, himself, off the bench. He shot 4 for 7 from the field, his best shooting percentage in a game with more than three attempts. That yielded a season-high 10 points. Gunn made some of Indiana’s biggest plays of the night — his one-handed dunk in the first half came when the Hoosiers needed to shift momentum, and his 3-pointer in the second half firmly swung that pendulum towards IU.
His play forced Woodson to keep him on the floor for nearly the entire second half. Gunn checked in just over a minute into the half, and only subbed out for a few brief periods at the end when Mackenzie Mgbako returned for his free-throw prowess.
“(Gunn’s) last few days of practice has been tremendous,” Woodson said. “I thought the last two days, our practice was tough, because I wasn’t really happy about the Nebraska (game) and how we played. But he had two good days, man, and I thought he deserved to play. I thought he responded.”
Galloway turned in more of an unsung performance Saturday, but he also had a big part in the backcourt’s turnaround. The senior put up only four points, on a 2-for-8 clip, but he made positive impacts even with the lower scoring output. He played solid defense, and was a key figure in IU’s improved ball-security. Galloway dished a team-high seven assists, with just one turnover. He simply made the right plays offensively, with frequency.
The Hoosiers committed a season-low four turnovers Saturday, with no player recording more than one. IU’s 22-5 advantage in points off turnovers proved the difference in the game.
“It brings a smile to my face,” Woodson said of the turnover improvement. “That was miserable sitting through that in Nebraska, just giving them the basketball. We talked about it. We watched the game when we came back as a team. After I watched it a couple times, it was just awful. But we rebounded from it. Learned from it.”
Some aspects of the IU backcourt’s big night came down to luck. The Hoosiers continued to struggle with 3-point defense, with blown rotations, abandoned assignments, and late closeouts affording the Buckeyes a lot of wide-open looks from beyond the arc. But OSU couldn’t take advantage of those opportunities, shooting just 7 for 27 from 3-point range.
Still, Indiana did well to limit Ohio State’s guards. Sophomore Bruce Thornton averaged 17.4 points per game entering Saturday, putting him among the top ten scorers in the Big Ten. But IU limited him to nine points. He and Roddy Gayle Jr. (14.9 points per game) shot a combined 7 for 34 from the field for 18 points. That duo is capable of torching a defense that plays the way IU’s did against Nebraska.
The Hoosiers knew their backcourt had to play a lot better — on both ends of the court — to have a chance against Ohio State. Woodson wasn’t afraid to make that known publicly. And the guards stepped up on Saturday and got the job done.