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“Only time will tell” when Xavier Johnson returns as IU looks to replace his toughness

Indiana point guard Xavier Johnson was the only Hoosier to stay in Bloomington over the team’s long break between games over the holidays.

That meant he got some one-on-one time to bond with his head coach, who has also been in town for much of the time.  The pair had dinner together along with Johnson’s mother, who came to Indiana.

Johnson stayed behind because he is rehabbing his surgically repaired foot as he tries to make a late season comeback during his final year of college basketball.

Woodson even tried out some of Johnson’s rehabilitation techniques, like attempting to pick up marbles with his toes.

“I was struggling (trying to pick up the marbles), and my foot is healthy.” Woodson said Monday evening on his radio show.

Woodson had surgery in December of his final season at Indiana, so he is uniquely positioned to provide encouragement to Johnson as he toils through the at times lonely rehab process.

But it’s entirely new for Johnson, who had never missed a game due to injury before he broke his foot at Kansas a couple weeks ago.

“He’s in a great mood,” Woodson said.  “And you have to stay that way.  I’ve been there, that happened my senior year.  You’ve got to stay positive.  And you’ve got to work your butt off to get back if you want to continue to play basketball.  You can’t be down.  I told him that, I said ‘hey man, you’ve just got to pick yourself up, stay positive, and put the work in, and in time everything heals and you’ll be back on the floor playing.”

As Indiana fans have come to realize over the last two seasons, Johnson takes an aggressive, high energy approach to the game, but that isn’t something that necessarily translates to rehab.

Woodson says his alpha point guard will have to stay calm and be patient to optimize the healing process.

“I know he’s got a high motor man, and he wants to get back out on the floor, and that’s a good thing,” Woodson said.  “But you’ve got to be smart about it and make sure you’re right when you come back, and you’re ready to play.”

Johnson’s high level of play late in the 2021-22 season helped to propel IU to its first NCAA Tournament in six years.

Will he be back in March for another postseason run?

That remains to be seen according to Woodson.

“Only time will tell, it’s just how quickly he recovers from his injury,” Woodson said.  “He had the surgery.  He said he’s feeling great in terms of, not so much being all the way pain free, but he says his foot feels a lot better, like something had been done.  And that’s a good sign after you’ve had surgery.”

When he met with the media on Tuesday morning, Woodson elaborated a bit, and hinted that Johnson appears to be on the right side of playing again this season.

“I wouldn’t count him out,” Woodson said. “He’s a tough competitor and already he’s doing some things a little ahead of schedule.”

In the meantime, Indiana is looking to replace that toughness and motor Johnson brings.

While Johnson improved on the offensive end last year, his defense on the ball was a constant as the Hoosiers ended up with the Big Ten’s most efficient defense in conference games a year ago.

Indiana’s defense was already struggling when Johnson went down in the first half against Kansas, but things certainly did not improve after he left that game, and there were some choppy moments in the two games that followed.

Woodson acknowledges the void created by Johnson’s absence is difficult to fill.

“I wish we had someone who would take that role on,” he said of Johnson’s aggressive approach.  “We’re still teaching and trying to get players to play at a high level.  That’s the one thing that about Xavier.  Sometimes you didn’t know what you’re going to get, but he played extremely hard, and it starts on the ball (on defense).  That’s going to be hard to replace, but we’ve got to work through it.”

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