Xavier Johnson is not supposed to be here. He came into the 2022-23 year with the expectation that it would be his last at the college level.
Johnson joined Indiana in Mike Woodson’s first year and played a huge role in earning the Hoosiers their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2016.
“Well, I thought two years ago, make no mistake about it, we got in the tournament because of Xavier Johnson and his play coming down the home stretch,” Woodson said during his press conference Wednesday. “Last year was a setback year for him. We didn’t come into last season thinking that we would lose our starting point guard, and that was a blow for us in the stretch where we struggled to win games.”
Johnson came into the season with high expectations, but broke his foot against Kansas on December 17 and missed the final 24 games of the season.
“The toughest part was seeing my team,” Johnson said about his injury. “We went on a losing streak last year and I couldn’t really help them out, to get on the floor to really help them out, so I had to talk to them and just be the motivational speaker on the sidelines.”
Johnson was approved for a medical hardship waiver this summer allowing him to play one more season for Indiana. He is now in a new spot as he heads into the season coming off the first significant injury of his career.
“My whole career I’ve never been injured. This is my first time battling a major injury to my body,” Johnson said during Wednesday’s media day. “One thing the coaches have been preaching to me is about staying in the training room. Training room got to be my best friend.”
Entering his sixth-year, Woodson has seen how hungry Johnson is and knows how important he his to the success of the program. Johnson was named to The Almanac preseason All-Big Ten Second Team and expectations are high for his final season.
READ: Indiana Basketball: Xavier Johnson named preseason All-Big Ten Second Team by The Almanac
“I think he’s hungry. I’m sure it was the first time he’s ever been hurt where he’s missed practically the whole season, so he’s got to be hungry,” Woodson said about Johnson. “This is his last go-around. He can’t come — hell, how many years is this, six years for him? Hell, he’s an old man. Hell, he can’t come back for seven, so he’s got to give us all he can give us this year to make it right. But I do think he’s hungry, absolutely I do.”
With Trayce Jackson-Davis gone, ‘Old man’ Xavier Johnson has been thrust into a leadership role for the upcoming season. He was named a captain of the team and, with that, he had to work on some things to help him grow as a leader.
“They get on me a lot about talking. I’m not the loudest guy, but I like to set everything by example,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I like to lead by example. One thing I am one of the most experienced guys on the team this year, so they’re expecting me to lead by example and by my voice, honestly.”
With so much roster turnover, Johnson will have to play a key role in integrating the new talent, which will directly affect the success of this team. One transfer Johnson talked about on Wednesday was Kel’el Ware, the 7-foot center from Oregon.
“He’s a very versatile big. He can shoot threes and he can pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, so that’s big time in the pick-and-roll game with me,” Johnson said about Ware. “Trayce couldn’t pop as much, but Trayce was leading throughout the rim. I don’t think nobody could stop him. But Coach Woodson is going to get him on the same track as far as pick-and-roll game.”
READ: ‘The word is out; they knocked you’: Mike Woodson, Kel’el Ware to use ‘lazy’ reputation as fuel
Johnson’s chemistry with Ware will be an X-factor for Indiana basketball. His connection with Jackson-Davis in the pick-and-roll offense was extremely important for Indiana and if the Hoosiers are going to have an effective pick-and-roll offense, Johnson and Ware will likely be at the center of it.
Indiana lost most of the team’s leading scorers from a year ago including the top two scorers Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino the NBA. Johnson seems confident that he and the guys around him have what it takes to replace the lost scoring.
“Before I came here, I was a scorer for my team. We didn’t win a lot, we didn’t have the same talent as well. I think I can still score the ball at a high clip,” Johnson said when I asked about his ability to score. “I got my teammates as well. I think Malik [Reneau] can score the ball at a high clip, I think Trey [Galloway] can. I think it’ll be different nights where we see a different person go crazy.”
While expectations for Johnson are high, it won’t be easy for him. Mike Woodson has emphasized he is harder on his captains than anyone else on the team, something his former coach was known for.
“We’ve got to get better and practice on both ends of the floor. He’s got to play a role in that. I’m hard on captains. I’ve always been that way,” Woodson said about his captain. “Bob Knight was hard on me as a captain when I was here. You’re not given that title just to be given it. You’ve got to earn it, and you’ve got to be held accountable in terms of not only putting yourself in position to help us win, but getting guys to play at a high level around you. That’s important.”
Woodson will be relying on Johnson’s experience and leadership to help this team find its way after the departure of Jackson-Davis. With an extremely difficult schedule ahead, Xavier Johnson and the Hoosiers will have to figure it out fast.
“This year, X has played more basketball games in college than anybody on our ballclub,” Woodson said. “So I expect him to lead, be a point guard and be a leader on and off the floor and put us in position to win basketball games. That’s what it’s all about.”
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