As far as Mike Woodson was concerned, the numbers told the story.
Indiana ended long losing streaks to Purdue and Michigan in 2022, but if they were to snap a four-game slide against Illinois, Woodson was going to need his big man to step up to the challenge.
Specifically, the 7-foot, 285 pound challenge named Kofi Cockburn.
Jackson-Davis and Cockburn arrived on their respective campuses at the same time in 2019, and IU’s losing streak against the Illini coincided with their time in college.
The Hoosiers have relied heavily on Jackson-Davis as a primary scoring option since day one and he has for the most part delivered. But there was a narrative out there that said Jackson-Davis struggled some against size and length, and he was largely ineffective, and 0-4, head-to-head against Cockburn.
Heading into Indiana’s Big Ten quarterfinals matchup against No. 1 seed Illinois in March, Woodson knew he would need much more out of his All-Big Ten forward.
Just a day earlier Jackson-Davis had struggled in the first half against another 7-footer who seemingly had his number, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson.
But Woodson got animated at halftime with Jackson-Davis and challenged him to step-up his game. Indiana’s NCAA Tournament lives were on the line.
The response was better than Woodson likely could have ever imagined. Jackson-Davis was 8-of-11 with 19 points after the break against Michigan. He missed his first four shots of the game and had two early turnovers, but made 10-of-13 with no turnovers to close things out. Jackson-Davis also blocked four shots in the second half and had a steal, as IU overcame a 17-point hole and advanced to meet Illinois.
“I learned a lot about Trayce Jackson-Davis, because at halftime he was the guy that I truly challenged,” Woodson recalled at an alumni event at Huber Farms in Borden, Ind. Wednesday. “He could have easily gone the other way, but he stepped up and did what he had to do.”
Perhaps emboldened by Jackson-Davis’ response against Michigan, Woodson took things a step further as preparations began for a game against Illinois that tipped less than 24 hours after the emotional win over the Wolverines.
While he is a career 55.8 percent shooter from the field during his college career, Jackson-Davis’ numbers looked much different in those four games against Illinois.
In his head-to-head meetings against Cockburn, the IU big man was just 17-of-49 from the field, for a shockingly low 34.7 percent. Jackson-Davis only averaged 12 a game against Cockburn, well below his average, and he also posted 2.8 turnovers in the four meetings, one more than his per-game career mark.
Woodson got his hands on those head-to-head numbers against Cockburn, and he did more than challenge Jackson-Davis this time.
He called him out.
“I put the stats right in his face from his matchups with Kofi, and I said ‘you’re scared of Kofi,'” Woodson recalled. “He said ‘no, I’m not coach,’ and I said, ‘well, the stats don’t indicate that.'”
Jackson-Davis has returned to play for Woodson twice now when he had plenty of other options, and that speaks volumes for his regard for his head coach.
“I just think Coach Woodson was just from the beginning, the moment that he got here, he told us it was going to be a family. I think all the players took that to heart. We all hold each other accountable. We pick guys up, and he’s the same way,” Jackson-Davis said this week when I asked him about why he and so many of the others players expected to play a major role next season chose to come back.
And because Woodson has built that kind of culture, he can deliver a tough to hear message — like telling his star player he is scared of his nemesis.
Never had Jackson-Davis been held more accountable than that.
And Woodson can not only deliver that message, he can get the results he had hoped for.
For the second straight day, Jackson-Davis responded in a major way. He scored 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting and added seven rebounds and three assists as IU won 65-63 and secured its spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“He was a different player against Kofi,” Woodson said. “He answered the bell. I learned a lot about Trayce Jackson-Davis.”
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