Indiana men’s basketball will look different next year.
That much is certain. The team’s roster turnover this offseason has been well-documented, with several key players leaving and some intriguing pieces coming in.
But IU will not only have new faces; the Hoosiers will look different stylistically as well. Trayce Jackson-Davis was the centerpiece of Indiana’s team for nearly his entire career in Bloomington, and certainly over the last two years under Mike Woodson.
Woodson, essentially, had no choice but to play through Jackson-Davis. He was IU’s best player. He had room to improve and expand his game — which he did — but it would’ve hurt Indiana’s chances to win games to make another player the focal point. Jalen Hood-Schifino and others stepped into that role on occasion, but Jackson-Davis was the team’s clear alpha.
But now, for the first time, Woodson has a chance to shift Indiana’s playing style. And he’s indicated a return to the way his Knicks teams played.
“There were a lot of things that I started implementing because it was new for me with the guy with his back against the bucket, giving him the ball, and trying to design things to get him the basketball. I don’t have that anymore coming into this season,” Woodson said during IU’s event at Huber’s Winery in late May. “I can pretty much go back to my comfort zone and how we played in New York, which we kind of spread the floor. That’s not to say our bigs, if I got mismatches and our bigs are early running, I expect them to try to post and get early strikes that way, and we try to get easy buckets right off our initial thrust. But it’s going to be a little bit different.”
Spreading the floor and spacing are the modern way to play basketball. Jackson-Davis did so many different things well that Indiana was not simply going into the low post on every possession. But he never utilized a 3-point shot — Jackson-Davis did not attempt a single 3-pointer last season and fired just three in his IU career, all in his junior year.
Indiana shot 36.8 percent from 3-point range last season, ranking 46th in the country and fourth in the Big Ten. But that number is misleading, as IU attempted just 15.5 threes per game last year. Only 10 teams — none in the Big Ten — averaged fewer.
It’s not that Indiana didn’t have good shooters on last year’s team. The Hoosiers just shot a very low volume from beyond the arc. Obviously, it didn’t prevent the team from being successful, though it may have impacted the group’s ceiling in the NCAA Tournament.
But next year’s team could be more well-equipped to play from the outside. Oregon transfer center Kel’el Ware may be the key for this. At 7-foot, he has the size and length Jackson-Davis brought inside — Ware is actually three inches taller than Jackson-Davis. But he also has some pick-and-pop ability, something TJD just didn’t have.
Now, Ware will need to improve his outside shooting numbers for that to be a significant difference-maker. He finished his freshman year at 28.3 percent from 3-point range. But if he can raise that percentage a bit, that’s the type of weapon that could unlock a lot in IU’s offense.
Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway are IU’s likely starting backcourt duo; Johnson is one of the more athletic guards in the Big Ten, and Galloway took major strides with his 3-point shot last season. IU could get more shooting help from freshman Mackenzie Mgbako, sophomore CJ Gunn, and, potentially, freshmen Gabe Cupps and Jakai Newton.
“From my watch, I think we have a pretty unique team. We’ll be more athletic than last year’s team,” Johnson said. “I think we built a solid team. Kel’el can run the floor, athletic, can set screens, get off the ball. Mgbako can shoot. Trey’s developing his 3-point shot as well, he’ll be another combo guard to me. We’ve got all the freshmen coming in as well. I just think we have a really good team.”
Indiana’s style could adapt on the other end of the court, as well, next season.
It’s hard to say IU’s defense will be better after losing Jackson-Davis, who won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He was one of the best defensive players in the country last year, and his departure leaves IU with a big hole on defense.
It’s unrealistic to expect Ware to be anywhere close to the defender Jackson-Davis was. Malik Reneau struggled defensively for most of last season. IU will need one of them to step up next year.
But the Hoosiers could have more length than they did last year. A hypothetical starting lineup of Johnson, Galloway, Mgbako, Reneau, and Ware is a little longer than last year’s starters were, especially in the frontcourt. Mgbako and Ware look longer than Miller Kopp and Jackson-Davis. Jordan Geronimo brought length off the bench, but IU has more frontcourt options with length on this year’s team in Payton Sparks, Anthony Walker, and Kaleb Banks.
And that will allow Woodson to get IU switching even more on defense, the way his Atlanta Hawks teams did.
“(Having more length) will definitely help us defensively. We switched a lot (in Atlanta) and became a pretty good defensive team. I caught a lot of hell for our team switching, and now everybody switches,” Woodson said. “The fact that we’ve added a seven-footer, a 6-10 guy, a 6-8 guy, that helps us defensively when we do switch and it helps us at the rim, it helps us rebounding. A lot of things come along with adding longer, athletic, rangy guys on your team, I think.”
Granted, it’s still June, and there can be big differences between what a team looks like on paper versus what it is in reality. IU has had several players over the last few years whose on-paper fits greatly differed from what they actually provided. Players could come into next season either more developed or further behind than expected.
But Indiana may have the pieces in place to play a more modern brand of basketball next season. Only time will tell how those pieces will fit together and how successful that style can be.
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