Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

Mind games: IU basketball at intersection of losing streak, time off, and NCAA drought

Coaching transitions can often lead to depleted rosters, but in large part due to his own salvage efforts, Mike Woodson was dealt a pretty good first year hand at Indiana.  On paper most believed coming into the season IU had an NCAA Tournament caliber roster at the least.

Woodson has also been for the most part fortunate from an injury standpoint.  Yes, Trey Galloway and Rob Phinisee have both missed significant time, and they are key pieces to the puzzle, but this 2021-22 Indiana team has not seen the wave of injuries that has ravaged other recent IU teams.

But what is seemingly missing from this Indiana team is magnified at this very moment.  And that is confidence.

You likely don’t need to be reminded that IU has not made the NCAA Tournament since Tom Crean’s 27-8 season in 2015-16.  In the six seasons that have followed including the current edition, the Hoosiers have amassed a 101-83 record, including just a 47-63 mark in the Big Ten over that span.  Woodson is of course IU’s third coach since that 2016 run to the Sweet 16, and no one on his roster has ever played in an NCAA Tournament game, not even the transfers.

“This thing has been hovering over our basketball program for some years now,” Woodson said on Saturday, referring to the NCAA drought.

When he was hired in March and in the months that followed, Woodson took question after question on how he would deal with the transition from the NBA to the college game.

What did he know about recruiting?  What did he know about zone defenses?  What did he know about the NCAA rules?

The question we all missed — what does he know about psychology?

Last week we documented Indiana’s recent struggles in the second halves of games.  With the stakes higher than ever in February Big Ten play, Woodson’s Hoosiers are folding in crunch time.  That’s led to their first losing streak of the season, one that has now swelled to four games.

Now with an unexpected near week off, and a lot of time to sit and think about what is going wrong, Woodson has found himself needing to reassure a team likely unable to escape thoughts of “here we go again.”

One trick up his sleeve — they’ve already cracked codes this year, claiming two road wins after an 0-4 start to the season away from home.

“I explained it today to these guys that we could not win on the road,”  Woodson said.  “But once we broke that barrier and won the first game on the road, we knew what that felt like. Until we can break this ice, these guys, they do not know what it feels like to make the NCAA Tournament and really compete for a Big Ten title. They do not understand that yet.”

Still, words of uncertainty slip out, even from the head coach.

Somehow, we have to break the ice,” Woodson said.

“I think we are okay,” he said when asked about his team’s mental state.

For his part, redshirt senior forward Race Thompson believes he benefited from the unexpected long break after the Ohio State game was pushed back two days.

“I really think for me personally it was just mental,” Thompson said when asked about the value of having extra days off.  “Just like coming in the gym getting some shots up and then again you just have some alone time hanging out, kind of just getting away a little bit, getting your mind right.”

Senior forward Miller Kopp has seen his share of collapses during the conference season.  In his three years at Northwestern the Wildcats were just 13-46 in league play.  He believes that dwelling on the past or the future is counterproductive.  Instead, he tries to stay in the present.

“It’s just about focusing on the next 10 minutes, you know, how can I make this next 10 minutes the best,” Kopp said on Saturday.

Kopp doesn’t see any magic levers that can be pulled.

Does IU need to start playing with a greater sense of urgency?  In his mind that’s the stuff of clichés, and a recipe for exacerbating the problem.

“I think we all have the same urgency we’ve had all year,” Kopp said.  “I think if you try to come in after after a loss or even a couple losses with more intensity and more urgency, I feel like it can kind of manifest itself into negative emotions and feelings to where it’s like you’re rushing and tense.”

Monday marks the confluence of Indiana’s struggles, as the Hoosiers attempt to snap their four-game skid with a return to the road, where they are back on a two-game losing streak.

There are details to be worked out, like whether Indiana, without Phinisee, can defend Ohio State at the same level it did in January when they held OSU to 51 points.

Can they slow down E.J. Liddell for a second straight game?  The All-Big Ten performer had just 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting in Bloomington.

Can Trayce Jackson-Davis have a second straight dominant game?  He posted 27 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks against the Buckeyes.

There are many more questions that must be answered on Monday evening at the Value City Arena (7 p.m. Eastern / FS1).  But for Woodson, when it comes to getting his team out of its current funk and back in the NCAA Tournament, ultimately things are fairly straightforward.

“The only thing that is going to help is winning,” Woodson said.  “When you have a bunch of guys that have never won, the mental thing starts to play a role. It is my job to ease that. There is not a day that goes by in practice that I am not positive, but I still have to coach. I have to push guys to play at a high level.

“We just have to learn how to finish. I have to help them in that category. Somehow.”

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