Six game season ending losing streaks will do it to anyone.
After a Feb. 17 win over Minnesota, Indiana was 12-9 overall and 7-7 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers were comfortably in the NCAA Tournament at the time, and a flicker of optimism masked obvious concerns for a team that couldn’t establish momentum.
And then it happened.
It started with a home loss to a struggling Michigan State team that was just 4-9 in the Big Ten at the time. That was followed by a loss at Rutgers where IU seemed to quit in the second half, sending up major red flags. Another home loss followed as Indiana was overmatched on Senior Day against Michigan. A pair of road losses closed things out for the regular season against Michigan State again and then at Purdue.
Finally, the Hoosiers were booed off the court at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis against Rutgers. And as they walked off the floor at Lucas Oil Stadium and entered the tunnel, Indiana’s players walked into the darkness.
Would Archie Miller be fired? Should I enter the transfer portal? Will my teammates?
The first question was answered in just a few days, but that only created more questions. Who will be the new head coach? Will there be an entirely new staff?
Then a wave of players entered the transfer portal. Al Durham, Jr. was expected, but five others followed him, and suddenly IU had no coach, and only a handful of players who were fully committed to whatever the future held in Bloomington.
“I feel like we’ve been in the dark for a while,” sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said on Friday. “There wasn’t any energy. Like, there was no energy here. Like all the life after the season was sucked out of us.”
Indiana competed in each game down that brutal stretch except perhaps that second half at Rutgers. But they were fragile, tight, lacked confidence and just looked like a team that wasn’t having fun anymore as the Archie Miller era teetered on the brink.
Miller’s offense led Indiana into that dark second half of March full of unknowns. The Hoosiers failed to score more than 58 points in any of their last four games and made just 13 of their last 74 3-point attempts. After a season that was riddled with long scoring droughts, IU was just No. 243 nationally in effective field goal percentage according to KenPom.com, and Miller’s IU teams never finished in the top-60 in adjusted offensive efficiency during his four seasons at the helm.
The offense was just miserable to watch at the end of the season, and for good reason — the players weren’t particularly happy about what they were being asked to do on that end of the floor.
“I think last year we struggled at times because we never really played up-tempo,” Jackson-Davis said. “I feel like when we played up-tempo, we were really good. I feel like we were set oriented too much. We didn’t really just get the ball and go. I feel like we were more robotic than basketball players.”
There was more thinking than freedom, poor spacing, and the team lacked a commitment to get out a run.
And so that is exactly what Jackson-Davis decided he was going to do — get out of Bloomington, and run to the professional game. His mind was already made up as he walked off that court at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 11. It was time to escape the darkness, that is, until new head coach Mike Woodson turned the lights back on.
Everything Indiana’s offense wasn’t under Miller, that is exactly what Jackson-Davis now expects in the program in his third season.
“I feel like Coach Woodson is really going to let the leashes off, let us actually play our games,” Jackson-Davis said. “I feel like that’s going to really help a lot of our teammates, really going to help people like Rob, if Khristian comes back. People like Khristian, too, those guys can go out and flat out score. They really didn’t get a chance to because we were always running sets.”
Jackson-Davis’ frustrations with Indiana’s offense are interesting because he scored 19 points a game and earned first team All-Big Ten honors and third team All-American recognition. But while he was more dominant at what he does well, Jackson-Davis didn’t improve on his weaknesses significantly. Where he wasn’t getting the help from the last coaching staff, Jackson-Davis believes he will have what he needs going forward.
“The thing that he (Woodson) really told me is the things that I did not want to hear,” Jackson-Davis said. “He told me what I needed to work on. He showed me clips of me playing. He showed me my missed shots, what I should have done in this situation, where I needed to take shots. That’s all my dad talks about. He talks about the things that I need to improve on. He never talks about what I’m good at. That right there was already showing me that he already wants what’s best for me. After he did that, I was sold on him.”
While Indiana’s half-court sets oriented style earned him individual accolades, he wasn’t necessarily more NBA ready, there was no joy in the locker room, and not much resembling the fun, loose style of basketball that he and his teammates want to play.
It led to a six game losing streak, Miller’s termination, and then, darkness.
But as bad as things seem to have been at the end, it all ended up being part of the reason why Jackson-Davis decided to return for his junior season.
“I don’t want to be someone who ran away when it was tough,” he said.
He didn’t run away. Jackson-Davis is staying for the third season.
And he hopes the light that arrived with Woodson shines brightly on him and his teammates as they attempt to find basketball joy again in Bloomington.
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