Indiana basketball is running out of opportunities to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume as the season flips to the back half of the schedule and if it’s going to make a late-season run, it’s clear senior guard Xavier Johnson will have to play a large part.
Johnson, who missed seven games with a foot injury earlier this season, has struggled with consistency since he returned to the lineup earlier this month. The fact of the matter is, the rust is in large part due to the lack of basketball he’s played in the last two seasons. After playing just 11 games last year due to a broken foot, Johnson has missed about as many games as he’s appeared in this year.
But, when Johnson is at his best and in a rhythm he’s one of the best guards in the Big Ten. That type of play remains in the back of Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson’s head — something that led Indiana to an NCAA Tournament back in 2021.
“X, make no mistake about it, in the first year, you know, us making it to the (NCAA) Tournament along with Trayce (Jackson-Davis) and that supporting cast, X had a lot to do with that,” Woodson said on Thursday. “And you know, since his injuries, you know, he’s been up and down, man. He’s been soul searching trying to find himself.”
During that run, Johnson averaged 14.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He also shot 41.4 percent from three on 3.4 attempts per game and 83.8 percent on 4.7 free throw attempts per game. That was a 17-game stretch.
Right now, there are 12 games remaining for Indiana and currently sitting at zero Quad 1 wins and a 12-7 overall record — there’s a lot to be desired.
“You know, we’ve got to get him back (playing at a high level),” Woodson said. “You know, you go around the Big Ten and you look at all the teams, you know, the perimeter play, the point guards are really playing extremely well … I know I’m frustrated and not in a bad way, meaning for him, because you know, it’s — this is his last go-around, man. He doesn’t get an opportunity to come back to college and play basketball again. What he’s gone through really the last year and a half has been tough.”
Johnson’s struggles this year have been well documented. He’s averaging just 7.8 points, 2.1 assists and 1.9 turnover per game in 12 games. His 38.7 percent shooting is his lowest since his sophomore season and his 2.1 assists are a career low — by over 2.4 assists per game.
In his six games since retuning from injury. Johnson is averaging just 5.0 points on 25.9 percent (7-of-27) shooting. He has 10 assists to 13 turnovers.
Johnson has also received a flagrant 2 ejection and flagrant foul in two separate games.
“Mentally, it’s been probably tough on him, man. You know, I’m the only one, along with his family and friends, can probably help him get out of this rut. Because he has had his ups and downs this season, and I feel his frustration, man,” Woodson said. “But we’ve still got a lot of Big Ten games left. There’s a lot of room for him to get back on track, and you know, that’s what I’m pushing — trying to push him in the right direction to get there.”
Johnson’s importance to this team isn’t news to him, either. He was voted a captain at the start of the season and no coach, teammate or fan has been harder on him than himself.
“I got to grow up, and I grew up tonight and got to keep growing up and not turn over the ball because my team needs me to make the right play every time,” Johnson said after his 18-point performance against Ohio State earlier this month. “I can’t make that excuse though. I’m a sixth-year guy. The team and Coach Woodson expects a lot out of me, and I’m going to give everything I got from the rest of the year on out.”
There is no next year.
There are also limited number of games remaining for Johnson this year.
Indiana basketball clearly needs its sixth-year captain to raise his level of play and get back to playing at the level that he, Mike Woodson and the rest of the league saw two years ago. And, it needs to happen now.
“So you know, he’s had a few good days of practice and I’m just — I’m just going to keep encouraging him and hopefully we’ll get the old X back,” Woodson continued. “Because we’re going to need him as we continue this journey throughout the Big Ten.”
SEE ALSO: Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson praises play of freshman point guard Gabe Cupps: ‘He leaves it out there on the floor’
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