Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

IU basketball: Will Mike Woodson be back to playing through big men next season?

When he took the job two years ago, it didn’t take Mike Woodson long to figure out his most dynamic player at Indiana would be Trayce Jackson-Davis.

So from day one, Woodson fed Jackson-Davis, and then he fed him so more.

And then Jackson-Davis improved significantly at reading and passing out of double-teams, so Woodson fed him even more.

By and large, it worked.  Jackson-Davis was a consensus First Team All-American, Indiana finished in second place in the Big Ten, and the Hoosiers made a second straight NCAA Tournament despite losing their starting point guard for the season in December.

All along the way, Jackson-Davis was paired with Race Thompson in Woodson’s front court, playing what he called buddy-ball, and giving him two players on the floor without much of a track record for scoring outside of the paint.

It wasn’t exactly Archie Miller’s slumbering triumvirate of Jackson-Davis, Joey Brunk and Justin Smith, but it didn’t seem like the perimeter focused style Woodson enjoyed in the NBA either.

After all, on their way to an Atlantic Division title, Woodson’s gunning 2013 New York Knicks set a then-NBA record with 891 made three-pointers in a season.  Juxtapose that to Indiana ranking 354th nationally (out of 363) this past season in three-point field goal attempts as a percentage of total field goal attempts.

So it seemed appropriate to ask Woodson after his season-ending loss to Miami last month whether he might look to change the playing style at IU — now that Jackson-Davis and Thompson were moving on — and after they had just lost to a Miami team that looked much more like the modern, versatile Knicks squads Woodson had coached a decade earlier.

So I asked him that question just minutes after the loss to the Hurricanes, and Woodson’s answer was perfectly reasonable.

“It depends on personnel,” Woodson said in Albany last month.

Of course it does.  It was, after all, understandable why Woodson played through Jackson-Davis for two years.  Not only because of how talented Jackson-Davis is, but also who he was surrounded by.  Indiana didn’t really have the personnel to play another way.

But just after completing his second season of coaching at the college level, Woodson went on to make it clear, the style of basketball you watched IU play the last two years was unlike anything he had coached before.

“Trayce Jackson-Davis is the first center that I’ve ever coached in my career where I had to utilize my center as a post-up player,” Woodson continued.

“But it’s the first time in my coaching career that I’ve had to coach a young man starting out on the block and expanding his game. I don’t know where we’re going to be next season in terms of how our style of play will be.”

There was little doubt going into the offseason that IU intended to play a different style in 2023-24 — if they had the personnel to get that done.

The early transfer portal targets they pushed for — Jamison Battle, Chris Ledlum, Nick Timberlake, and Dalton Knecht to name a few — were all dynamic scorers with range beyond the paint.

Assistant coach Kenya Hunter seemed certain when speaking on a late March podcast that change was coming on the offensive end of the floor.

“Trayce was a different guy and we had to utilize him a lot and Coach Woodson found ways to help him and put him in position and we needed that,” Hunter said.  “But I think moving forward there will be a shift in how we play.”

Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan thus far.

To this point Indiana has struck out on all of its main perimeter portal targets, while they’ve landed a potential centerpiece big man in Kel’el Ware, and a second big in Payton Sparks.

If point guard Xavier Johnson gets his hardship waiver approved as expected and returns for a sixth season, then suddenly the Johnson – Ware tandem seems like the focal point of Indiana’s attack next season, much like the Jalen Hood-Schifino – Trayce Jackson-Davis duo of 2022-23.  And Malik Reneau will seemingly step in for Race Thompson at the four, giving Woodson another primary front court player who does most of his scoring in the paint.

Ware is not the same player as Jackson-Davis.  He’s expected to score from the perimeter.  But sitting here right now, Ware and Reneau’s combined 17 made threes a year ago on below 30 percent shooting aren’t looking much different than Jackson-Davis and Thompson’s 12 on below 30 percent.

Where will the wing production come from to shift the focus away from scoring at rim?

There are portal players who have been mentioned here, like Northern Colorado’s Dalton Knecht and Notre Dame’s Cormac Ryan as just two examples, who could give IU’s perimeter potential a shot in the arm.  But at the surface there is no one right now in the portal who IU is seemingly in the driver’s seat with.

The transfer portal doesn’t close until May 11, so perhaps we’ll see the Hoosiers go after players we aren’t even thinking about right now.  They do have three open scholarships, after all.

And it isn’t the worst thing in the world to play through big men.  UConn rode Adam Sanogo and Donovan Clingan to a national title.

But the Huskies were much more talented, athletic and versatile in the two through four spots than how Indiana projects right now.  Or if you trust who IU has already, let’s just say, more proven.  So was Miami, and so are most teams that do well in March.

If Indiana is going to extend its NCAA Tournament streak to three straight years under Woodson, he might be left with hoping his returning shooting guards/wings (Trey Galloway, Anthony Leal, C.J. Gunn, Kaleb Banks) make substantial improvements, and his freshmen (Jakai Newton and Gabe Cupps) are ready from day one.

But even with that, we might just be looking at another year of, for better or worse, IU basketball playing through the paint.

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