BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Mike Woodson has no interest in settling into rebuild mode at Indiana. He wants to win now, and anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022 will be considered a big disappointment.
Every move – every euphoric wonderful move – that he's made so far has been pure gold. He convinced star forward Trayce Jackson-Davis to stay, he made the right call in retaining Kenya Hunter on his staff and bringing Dane Fife aboard to join him. He also convinced Parker Stewart, Khristian Lander and Jordan Geronimo to take their names out of the transfer portal and stay in Bloomington.
Boxes checked, one after another.
But Woodson also is dead-set on making Indiana better, too. Oh sure, there will be a great emphasis placed on developing current players, but we all know that this roster needs to be better, be more talented, to erase the stench of a 12-15 season that Archie Miller presented us on the way out the door.
That started on Wednesday night when former Pitt guard Xavier Johnson announced that he had committed to Woodson and the Hoosiers. On any short wish list at Indiana, if improving at the point guard position wasn't most important item, it was darn close. Another big, physical center would be nice, as would another lights-out perimeter shooter, but fixing the point guard spot is huge.
Let's be clear on one thing, real quick. I do think that Rob Phinisee and Khristian Lander will both be better players under Woodson and his staff, mostly because the offense that they run will be more wide-open, more free-wheeling, more – dare we say – fun.
Last year was not fun at all, and for all the fan disgust, no one was more upset about the results last year than the players on this team. That is absolutely true. And that final six-game losing streak to end the season ripped at their soul.
The disconnect between Miller and the players had already started, and their play showed it. They were awful, all of them.
But for Phinisee and Lander, they both had hugely disappointing seasons at the point guard position. No one is giving up on them, not by a longshot, but infusing more talent at the position is a good thing.
Phinisee, the junior from Lafayette, just finished his third year at Indiana. His first two seasons were hampered a bit by injuries, but this year the damage was done between his ears. He lost his confidence this past season, and it was clearly evident out on the court. He was overwhelmed by most every opponent he squared off against, but Phinisee himself was his biggest foe.
That's how bad his mind was winning.
Phinisee played in all 27 games for the Hoosiers, averaging 27 minutes a game. He shot a career-low 34.7 percent from the field, and shot only 26.0 percent from three-point range, also a career low. Phinisee was just 63.8 percent from the free throw line, too, which should never happen from a point guard, especially in critical situations.
There were many games where you just ached watching him trying to play. He had three games – Rutgers, Illinois and Michigan State — where he didn't score a single point the entire game. That was a combined 65 minutes of playing time without scoring, an 0-for-15 shooting total total, and 0-for-6 from deep, with six turnovers. The end result? All Indiana losses.
And that wasn't all. He had two other games – Texas and Northwestern – where he didn't make a field goal, either. Both Indiana losses as well, and 0-for-9 shooting from Phinisee. This season, he made more than two shots only 10 times in 27 games.
The struggles were evident on his face and in his body language. It was a struggle.
It was the same for Lander, who reclassified to arrive at Indiana a year early. He was a five-star point guard at Evansville Reitz, but we really never saw much of that during the season. He shot only 25.7 percent from the field, the lowest total on the team, and his shooting form was so bad that he air-balled nearly a dozen three-point attempts during the season.
In retrospect, coming to Indiana a year early was probably a mistake. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard was overmatched physically in the brutal Big Ten, and he was never a comfortable fit in Miller's boring offense. Lander entered the transfer portal after Miller was fired, but I wouldn't have been surprised if he left had Miller stayed, too.
He's since pulled his name out of the portal and is coming back, because he sees the new life in the program and Lander's skill-set is a perfect fit for what's to come from Woodson and his staff. Lander will definitely be a big part of Indiana's future, and I have no doubt about that. No one will benefit more from another year of maturity AND a new coaching staff.
And that brings us back full circle to Xavier Johnson. He and Lander are both very quick getting the ball up the floor. But Johnson, with three years under his belt, is a much more composed point guard. He's also got the ability to score, often at will, and he's a great passer, averaging 5.7 assists per game.
Sometimes he plays TOO fast, which can lead to turnover issues, He knows that will be a point of emphasis in improving his game.
“I just have to slow down and continue to watch a lot of film,” Johnson told The Daily Hoosier. “Coach Woodson is going to put me in the open floor so I can make a lot of plays. I want to be able to shoot the ball at a consistent level. I want to increase my 3-point percentage to 40 percent. … When I get to Indiana, I’m going to let those guys tell me what to do to fix it.”
Johnson is a high-energy guy, sometimes to a fault, but his talent level is off the charts. What might be the most important part of his arrival will be that fact that he's a new face. Simply running back the entire roster with a new coaching staff was never going to be enough. Adding Johnson puts a different look at the depth chart and pecking order. Woodson and crew will make him better.
He'll be better, because he's prepared to listen, first to NBA veteran Mike Woodson, and then to assistant coach Kenya Hunter, who was critical in his recruitment because of their long-time relationship on the recruiting trail. And Dane Fife, Woodson's most recent hire, is terrific at coaching guards and helping develop the offense.
Lander will be better too, of course, and when they fix his shooting form, the jump will be dramatic. Phinisee might see more time at the two, the off-guard spot, which will be fine, too, once his confidence level rises.
Adding new blood from the transfer portal is a big thing, and there may be more to come for Indiana.
A new-look to the roster is a big thing. Woodson will change HOW Indiana plays, and the more weapons they can add, the better.
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- JOHNSON COMMITS TO INDIANA: Pitt point guard Xavier Johnson commits to Mike Woodson and Indiana's new coaching staff. CLICK HERE
- DANE FIFE INTERVIEW: Former Hoosier great Dane Fife has spent 10 years on Tom Izzo's staff at Michigan State, but now he's coming home to Indiana to coach the Hoosiers. He chatted with radio star Dan Dakich for 30 minutes, and here's the complete interview, plus the highlights. CLICK HERE
- DREAMING BIG: Indiana opened as 80-to-1 odds when Draftkings released its odds for winning the 2022 national championship, but it quickly went down to 66-to-1 by morning, so that meant people were placing bets on the Hoosiers. CLICK HERE