If there are common links to Indiana’s losses this year, combatting pressure defense and stopping dribble penetration seem like a couple that stand out.
Along with a lack of reliable guard depth.
Those are areas where fifth-year point guard Xavier Johnson can help, and it sounds like he’ll be back on the court for Indiana sooner than later.
On his pre-game radio spot on Wednesday evening, IU coach Mike Woodson said Johnson is “probably another week or two” from returning. That was the first time Woodson put any kind of timeline on a possible return for his veteran floor general.
Johnson suffered a broken foot on Dec. 17 at Kansas and had surgery shortly thereafter. The Hoosiers have been thin in the backcourt since he went down two months ago. Woodson has only played three guards — Jalen Hood-Schifino, Trey Galloway and Tamar Bates — in the last two games, and Bates has been struggling.
With just five regular season games remaining, it will be interesting timing to try to integrate a key contributor back into the mix. Johnson was averaging 9.9 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.3 rebounds this season through 11 games. He was a key reason why IU made a late season push a year ago, but he’ll try to help again this season under completely different circumstances.
Indiana is in the thick of the race for a double-bye at the Big Ten Tournament, and still looking to lock up a favorable NCAA Tournament seed. The big questions are how IU will weave Johnson back into its rotation, and how effective can he be making a mid-season return during a key stretch of the season?
Johnson’s strengths are his speed and quickness, along with on-the-ball defense, all things that will test his stamina, along with his recovering foot.
Coming back from injury is a foreign concept for Johnson. The Virginia product had previously never missed a game in four plus years due to injury, and he has started every game he’s been available at Indiana. While he has been doing conditioning work during his rehabilitation, Johnson may need to be eased back in on a minutes count while he gets fully back into game shape and regains his feel for the game and rhythm.
Indiana opened the season 6-0 with its original starting lineup of Johnson, Hood-Schifino, Miller Kopp, Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis, including wins over Xavier and North Carolina. But collectively that group has missed 26 games this season, and current starter Galloway also missed three games.
Thompson played his first game last night without a knee brace, and the others seem to have put their injury issues behind them. It is conceivable after all of those missed games, IU’s main rotation players could be back to 100 percent when the postseason arrives.
Indiana hosts Illinois on Saturday before traveling to Michigan State next Tuesday. The Hoosiers then travel to Purdue a week from Saturday, before closing the regular season with home games against Iowa and Michigan.
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