Mike Woodson returning to Indiana next season: How Hoosiers coach must evolve to justify faith of IU



Indiana’s decision to bring back coach Mike Woodson for a fourth season, which was widely reported Wednesday, takes one of the biggest potential openings of college basketball’s coaching carousel off the board. 

It also brings into focus just how critical the months ahead will be for Woodson, who will inevitably be featured on hot seat lists entering the 2024-25 season.

The Hoosiers just spent $15.5 million to buy out fired football coach Tom Allen’s contract, so scrounging up the cash to pay Woodson a buyout that would reportedly have exceeded $12 million may have been impractical. Based on Woodson’s performance — not to mention his status as a revered former player — it also would have been hard to justify.

The 65-year old former IU star under Bob Knight is 60-39  and 29-29 in the Big Ten with two NCAA Tournament appearances. While this year’s squad entered Wednesday night’s game at Minnesota with a 16-13 (8-10 Big Ten) record and no chance of an at-large bid to the Big Dance, the program has still accomplished more under Woodson through three years than it did under his recent predecessors. 

Archie Miller wasn’t a former Hoosier great, and he got a fourth season after going 55-43 (26-32) through three years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. His third team likely would have snuck into the Big Dance before the postseason was wiped out by COVID-19. But it would have done so with a paltry 9-11 Big Ten record.

Sad as it was by the program’s historical standards, Miller’s record through three seasons looked great in comparison to Tom Crean’s mark. It took Crean four years to post a winning record as the program dug out of the wreckage left behind from Kelvin Sampson’s tenure, which lasted less than two seasons amid a crippling infractions fiasco.

Against the standard set by that trio, Woodson’s first three seasons don’t look so bad. But there are some obvious, significant changes that need to occur for the administration to be validated in its decision to retain him.

The Hoosiers desperately need an infusion of guard talent along with a scheme modernization. While spending almost four decades as an NBA player, assistant and head coach, Woodson witnessed the game’s evolution toward 3-point shooting firsthand at the game’s highest level.

Yet, his Indiana teams have each ranked 311th or worse nationally in made 3-pointers per game, with this year’s squad landing as the worst of the bunch in that category at No. 348 of 362. IU has made fewer than five 3-pointers on 13 occasions this season and even went 0 for 9 from deep in a loss at Illinois on Jan. 27.

Woodson did well to retain frontcourt players Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson following Miller’s tenure, and the duo served as excellent building blocks for the Hoosiers as they returned to the Big Dance the past two seasons. But when both moved on after the 2022-23 season, Woodson failed to capitalize on an opportunity to diversify the team’s offensive identity.

Again, the Hoosiers are overly reliant on a pair of frontcourt players in sophomore Malik Reneau and Oregon transfer Kel’el Ware. Both are phenomenally talented and have been productive and efficient.

But they sorely need help from the perimeter. Given that the program’s only Class of 2024 commitment is from five-star power forward Liam McNeeley and that lead guard Xavier Johnson is finally out of eligibility, it stands to reason the Hoosiers will go hard in the transfer portal.

Or, if they weren’t planning on it, they should be. The IU boosters aren’t on the hook for Woodson’s buyout. However, if they want this to work, the Hoosiers need to come up with a bag — make that several bags — of NIL cash to throw at the top guards who test the transfer market in the weeks and months ahead.

It has been a rough go of it for the contingent of revered former NBA stars returning to their colleges as coaches. Patrick Ewing flamed out at Georgetown last season, Juwan Howard’s tenure at Michigan is going nowhere fast and Penny Hardaway has generally under-delivered in six seasons at Memphis after talking a big game when he got the job.

Woodson can still separate himself from that group. None of those three were ever NBA head coaches. Woodson took two different franchises to the NBA playoffs. None of those three coaches took their colleges to consecutive NCAA Tournaments to begin their tenures. Woodson did even after inheriting a disaster. 

The only real justification for firing Woodson would have been for the sake of hiring FAU coach and Indiana alum Dusty May before he’s hired by another school. Kicking a former Knight player to the curb after three seasons for a former Knight manager would be a questionable look.

Woodson deserves better than that, and it appears he’s getting it. Now, it’s time for Woodson to do his part and make the necessary changes to justify the faith he’s been shown by IU’s administration.





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