Losing Xavier Johnson didn’t completely sink Indiana’s season a year ago.
Although their starting point guard went down for the year with a broken foot in December, the Hoosiers still finished tied for second in the Big Ten and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Trayce Jackson-Davis’ rise to consensus first team All-American caliber play, and Jalen Hood-Schifino’s ability to step in and run the show helped to ensure IU survived the loss of Johnson, who had carried the team at times a year before.
But the Hoosiers still fell short of preseason expectations, and there was a clear drop-off in one key area by Indiana without Johnson in the lineup over the back two-thirds of the season.
After finishing No. 24 nationally in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency in Mike Woodson’s first season as head coach in 2021-22, IU fell to No. 45 according to that measure a year ago.
The defensive decline really stood out in league play, where IU fell from No. 1 in the Big Ten to No. 9, year-over-year according to the efficiency metrics. And it’s that decline that seems most connected to the loss of Johnson, the player his teammates have referred to as the “dog” of the team.
With Johnson back and healthy, along with his tenacious co-captain Trey Galloway, there should be plenty of snarl at the top of this year’s IU defense.
Woodson has said repeatedly over the last two and a half years he’s a defense-first coach. When Indiana was at its best defensively in 2021-22, he had Johnson, Galloway and Rob Phinisee all on the floor together. On several occasions that was his lineup to get late-game stops.
At times Woodson would have Johnson guard the ball full court, another element that was lost when he went down to the foot injury. The sixth-year guard credits his speed as his greatest attribute on the defensive end of the floor.
“If they want me to pick guys up full court I will. I’ll do anything the team needs,” Johnson said at the program’s media day in September. “I’ll sacrifice my body, I’ll take charges.
“But one thing I do want to do this year is stay out of foul trouble early.”
That’s going to be a delicate dance for the Virginia native, as staying out of foul trouble and playing aggressive defense are seemingly at odds. But Johnson’s ability to stay on the floor is going to be more important than ever this season as Indiana navigates an apparent lack of guard depth.
Early last season Indiana had the luxury of bringing Galloway off the bench to spell Johnson and Hood-Schifino, so there wasn’t a letdown defensively when Woodson brought in reserves. Hood-Schifino is off to the NBA of course, and while it seems clear Indiana will be very good defensively when both Johnson and Galloway are on the floor, things are a bit murky when they turn to the bench.
If freshman Jakai Newton was going to contribute anything as a freshman, it was probably defense, but it isn’t clear if or when he’ll be available this season as he recovers from surgery. That leaves fellow freshman Gabe Cupps, sophomore C.J. Gunn and senior Anthony Leal as the guard options off the bench to open this season.
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, Cupps is a bit undersized for a Big Ten guard, and he’s knows better than anyone what facing Johnson entails. He says trying to initiate the offense with Johnson guarding him has been his greatest challenge at practice since the Ohio product arrived in Bloomington.
“The biggest thing has been him (Johnson) guarding me, just because he’s so physical and gets up into you,” Cupps said.
And for as good as Johnson is defensively, it was Galloway last season who in many ways was responsible for holding things together. One of the main reasons why IU was able to sweep Purdue a year ago was Galloway’s defense against their young guards. He had four steals in the two games, and his defense helped spark a second half a rally in West Lafayette.
“He plays hard, man,” Woodson said of Galloway after Indiana’s win at Purdue in February. “That’s what I like about him.”
“He does a lot of nice things, dirty things, that most players don’t like to do and that’s play defense and get into people.”
Tenacity won’t be in short order with Johnson and Galloway on the floor for IU. That much we can say with confidence.
Woodson does like to switch on defense, and on the wing will be players like Gunn, Kaleb Banks and Mackenzie Mgbako, who could find themselves switched onto quicker guards. That’s something all three will have to prove they can handle.
But if Indiana can get 32 or more minutes per game all season from Johnson and Galloway, one thing we know is the Hoosiers should generally be stout at the top of their defense. And that seems like a good foundation for being competitive in what should be a fairly wide open Big Ten.
For complete coverage of IU basketball, GO HERE.
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”