Aside from star forward Tracee Jackson-Davisthere were perhaps no two players more vital to Indiana’s success last season than fifth-year starting forward Race Thompson and senior starting point guard Xavier Johnson.
And next season, both Thompson and Johnson are returning to Indiana. For Indiana head coach Mike Woodson, it’s music to his ears knowing that regardless of Jackson-Davis’ impending NBA Draft decision, he’ll still have two of his most trusted veterans back to guide the team.
In a recent lengthy conversation on The Hoosier Hysterics Podcast, Woodson discussed the moment he received the call from Thompson this offseason about his intentions to return to Indiana for a sixth and final season.
“For him to commit to come back, man, he made Woodson’s day,” Woodson said. “When he called and said I’m returning, that was huge for me because I know exactly what I’m getting. I’m getting leadership, I’m getting a quality young man on and off the court. It’s just perfect for our ball club and this university that he’s making another return to stay on board with us.”
In Thompson, the Hoosiers will return the Big Ten’s most experienced frontcourt player next fall. After starting all 35 games last season and averaging 11.1 points and 7.5 rebounds, the 6-foot-8 big man made significant strides in his first year under Woodson — most notably, shooting 15-of-55 (27.3 percent) from three- point range after never making more than six throughout his previous four seasons at IU.
The evolution of Thompson’s overall offensive skillset, Woodson said, coupled with his leadership and tenacity was one of the brightest takeaways for the Hoosiers last season.
“When you think about what Race did for our ball club this year, he was like everything to our ball club and he became better as a basketball player,” Woodson said. “You think about some of the plays he made in the open court with the ball, he made some threes, he was a beast down low, great interior passer where he and Trayce played a lot of buddy ball. I mean, from what I watched of Race the year before and to where he ended up for our ballclub, it’s like night and day.”
The same can be said about Johnson, who spent three seasons at Pittsburgh before transferring to Indiana prior to last season. The growing pains were consistent and evident early on as Johnson was turning the ball over at an alarming rate, and IU’s overall production suffered as a result.
But as Woodson and IU’s coaching staff remained patient with Johnson and continued to work with him throughout the season, the fruits of their patience finally emerged late in the year. Across IU’s three games in the Big Ten Tournament, Johnson averaged 16.7 points, made 15-of-16 free throws, made 5-of-11 three-pointers, and recorded the program’s most assists in a single Big Ten Tournament with 22.
Without Johnson’s development and persistence over the course of the season, Woodson said, Indiana likely would not have enjoy nearly the same late-season success, which eventually earned the Hoosiers an NCAA Tournament bid.
“That position is the toughest position on a basketball floor, and if you’re not clicking with that position, you struggle offensively,” Woodson said. “X has always been pretty good defensively, our defense starts with him up the floor, putting heat on the basketball. But offensively, he struggled with running pick-and-roll’s the way we wanted him to run them, he struggled to get the ball where it needed to go, and he struggled with making good decisions.
“And a lot of that had to do with, hey, new coach, new system, I get it, a lot of things mentally that you got to deal with — school still and off the court. I mean, there’s a lot of things that come with playing college basketball, but a lot of people just don’t understand when you’re dealing with these young men and they put up with a lot of shit from Coach Woodson.
“I’m probably harder on (Xavier) than any player on the team because I needed that position to function and function at a high level, and X, he just kept working, putting up with it, working and he got better, and that’s what basketball is all about… My coaching staff, they had a lot to do with that because we put time in with him and and we benefited from it at the end of the season because he was clicking on all cylinders, doing a lot of good things to help us win basketball games.”