Indiana Basketball: Hoosiers’ preseason hype lacks substance

Many expect Indiana basketball to have a breakout season in 2022-23, but those who are suggesting a vast improvement may be disappointed.

College basketball is a healthier, more enjoyable sport when its biggest programs — such as Indiana basketball has been at times— are at their best. When they are making headlines, programs like IU draw attention from even the most casual follower.

But for the Hoosiers in particular, it has been a while since the machine has operated at peak efficiency. Indiana has finished in the final AP Top 25 poll just three times since its last National Championship game appearance in 2002, and the team hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 in that time. In Big Ten play, IU hasn’t recorded a winning conference record since 2015-16.

Despite the recent track record, many believe Indiana basketball will make its long-awaited return to prominence in 2022-23.

Indiana returns a majority of the group that earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance (and victory) since that 2015-16 team, and this group will be ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time since 2016. The Hoosiers also bring in a top-10 recruiting class headlined by two top-30 prospects in Jalen Hood-Schifino and Malik Reneau. Given the personnel losses elsewhere in the Big Ten — and the return of All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis — there’s a good chance that Indiana will be the media’s preseason pick to win the conference.

All that excitement has fueled a rather noisy offseason hype train, with some proclaiming that Indiana is #BACK and potentially a top-10 team.

I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

Fine, way ahead of ourselves.

—Way-too-early Top 25 rankings ’22-23

—Trayce Jackson-Davis returns to Indiana

—Way-too-early Big Ten preview ’22-23

Does the return of TJD truly move the needle?

Simply put, nothing about Indiana basketball has really changed from the last couple of years. There are no tangible signs of improvement — only hope for improvement.

Jackson-Davis might be the best returning player in the Big Ten, and he may find himself as a preseason All-American. He’s a talented player now in his senior year after being named an all-conference performer each of his first three years in Bloomington. But his game hasn’t really progressed.

His offensive output and rebounding actually dipped last season, and he still hasn’t expanded his game outside the paint. TJD also tends to really beat up on lesser opponents while having a lesser impact against the caliber of competition Indiana faces on a more consistent basis. Here’s a breakdown of how that looked last season:

That’s not to say Jackson-Davis isn’t a good player — he is! Nevertheless, he has already gone through two offseason programs and hasn’t made the leap from a good player to someone who can carry a team all the way to the top of the sport. That’s the kind of impact many think he will have, and it is a big reason for Indiana’s lofty expectations. TJD hasn’t shown us he can do that, though, and I’m doubtful that he will.

Was last year a warning shot — or a fluke?

The same goes for point guard Xavier Johnson, who caught fire late in the season and helped get the Hoosiers into the Big Dance. He scored in double figures in each of Indiana’s last 10 games after only doing so 11 times in the previous 25. Some are taking his hot run of play as the baseline for what he’ll do in 2022-23. However, the rest of his four-year college career tells us otherwise:

I think we’re more apt to see Johnson play at the level he did the first three and a half years of his career, as opposed to one hot stretch that lasted less than a month.

And that’s another thing: we forget how close this team was to not making the NCAA Tournament.

The Hoosiers made a run to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, defeating Michigan and Illinois before ultimately falling to Iowa. Indiana apparently needed to win both those games to make the Big Dance, based on the Hoosiers’ placement in the First Four game. If those two B1G Tournament games — decided by a combined seven points — break the other way, then I don’t think we’re talking about Indiana basketball the same way.

Are we sure this isn’t the same old Indiana basketball?

The problems that plagued them a year ago remain.

Mike Woodson’s squad ranked 200th in 3-point shooting and 321st in 3-point attempt rate in 2021-22, and Woodson still has not addressed those deficiencies. Miller Kopp came in from Northwestern last offseason to be the team’s sharpshooter, but his 38.7 percent 3-point clip doesn’t cut it when you’re the team’s only “reliable” shooter.

Indiana also wasn’t very deep last season. There’s hope the freshman class can help with that, but the number of outgoing transfers that would’ve been a part of the rotation — Khristian Lander, Rob Phinisee and Parker Stewart, in particular — mean the Hoosiers are relying on their freshmen to contribute right away. Countless highly rated freshmen have shown that they need time to adjust to the college game, which creates another question mark for Woodson’s roster.

The realist in me understands why there’s so much hype around Indiana. This will be a veteran group with known commodities, one coming off a hot finish under a head coach entering his second season. It’s not like there isn’t talent on this team — a breakthrough is certainly possible! Especially in a league undergoing a lot of turnover and with no elite team at the top, it’s easy to expect Indiana to step in and fill that void.

But those known commodities are just that, known commodities.

Indiana basketball will be good, but just how good?

We know what Indiana is likely going to get from Jackson-Davis, Johnson, Race Thompson, and others. We’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen how they have progressed — or, more to the point, how they haven’t — through multiple offseasons now. The Hoosiers are who they are, and what they have been is a team mired in the bubble conversation for a few consecutive seasons now.

This team was never ranked in either the AP or Coaches polls in 2021-22. In fact, the players that make up the current core have never led Indiana to a Top 25 ranking in either poll at any point during the past three seasons.

I will concede that, because of what projects to be a down year for the Big Ten, the Hoosiers likely won’t find themselves in the bubble conversation again in March 2023. They’ll probably get in safely.

Still, I think there’s a greater chance of Indiana being a bubble team than there is of the Hoosiers being a top-15 team, which seems to be where the general consensus is putting them.