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OPINION: A consistent message falling on deaf ears — the lack of leadership is concerning for Indiana basketball



The lack of leadership for the Indiana basketball program is concerning in numerous ways and Tuesday's incident highlights it even more.

College basketball games and championships are won with upperclassmen and with maturity. Those are two parts of a team’s makeup that always needs to be at the forefront when putting the pieces together of a new roster. Regardless of the new transfer portal and NIL world, it’s something that remains fully intact. For Indiana basketball — the maturity aspect is a serious area that is lacking.

That lack of maturity was on full display in Indiana’s loss to Rutgers on Tuesday night. Not only was Indiana getting run out of the gym by one of the worst teams in the conference — if not the worst — but it was highlighted by the ejection of sixth-year senior point guard Xavier Johnson.

At the 13:15 mark of the second half, Johnson got caught up in a ball screen on the defensive end of the floor. When trying to get over top of the screen, he reached between the legs of Rutgers forward Antwone Woolfolk, hitting him in the groin area. Johnson was then pushed to the floor by Woolfolk causing a whistle and a review by the refs. A blatant and unacceptable action by Johnson resulted in a Flagrant 2 foul and an ejection.

The score at that moment was 39-35, Rutgers. That sparked a 14-5 run for the Scarlet Knights to take a 13-point lead and never look back.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the Big Ten would take no further action and no suspension by the conference would take place. But honestly, I’m not sure if that’s even a good thing.

This is now the third major incident involving Johnson in 2.5 years with the Indiana basketball program. That doesn’t include the other antics on the floor between him and the refs.

The first incident was in 2021, his first season at Indiana. Ahead of the Northwestern game — an extremely important away game for the Hoosiers at that point in the season — Johnson was among five players suspended for reportedly staying out after curfew. Indiana went on to lose the game 59-51 which was the second loss in a row in the middle of a five-game losing streak and a 2-7 record in February and March to close out the regular season.

The second incident was the speeding and reckless driving arrest he had in the summer of 2022 — going a reported 90 mph in a 40 mph zone on campus. Then Johnson — who was the driver — tried to change seats with a passenger.

All of this from a then fifth-year player and supposed leader of the team? After a season that was then cut short by a broken foot, the full expectation was that Xavier Johnson would be fully locked in and staying away from any distractions.

That wasn’t the case as now Tuesday’s incident sparked another discussion and distraction.

But, this scenario may be the worst of them all. This is from someone who has appeared in 138 games in his college career. From someone who has started 135. Someone who is in his sixth season. Someone who has almost had his career cut short by injuries twice now.

And, above all — a captain.

With limited time remaining in his college career, Johnson surely isn’t playing like a leader. The fact that, once again, this is a talking point for the Indiana basketball program is inexcusable.

In fact, sophomore forward Malik Reneau has been the one person who has acted and spoken like a leader throughout the majority of this season. And, he understood the impact of Johnson’s decision at the time.

“It was a super bad loss when X got the flagrant 2 foul in the second half. It really shocked us. Trying to move forward from that was tough,” Reneau said postgame. “We were still thinking about X and we can’t do that when he’s out of the game. If he’s out of the game, we have to move on to the next person. It was just a tough loss to lose X at a critical time, down four trying to make a comeback happen. Just a tough loss that we needed at the time.”

‘A critical time’. Exactly. To have a captain do that is just unacceptable.

The other captain this season for Indiana basketball is Trey Galloway and unfortunately, his impact as a leader hasn’t shown — outwardly — as much as you’d like to see.

“Well, I expect our seniors, (Anthony) Walker, X and Gallo — Anthony Leal has been great, no complaints there — those three guys are seniors, they gotta help lead. And the road is different than playing at home, there’s no doubt about that,” Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “I thought we came out with good intentions. We played hard doing some during spurts of the ball game, but again, missed free throws, 19 offensive rebounds, terrible from the three-point line, and I don’t know how many turnovers we had. We had a lot of turnovers. 18 turnovers. That’s all losing basketball and I’ve got to fix it.

“You don’t expect your senior guard to get kicked out.”

While the on court play is a talking point enough, the bigger issue that I’ve come to see is the lack of leadership in practice. The reason why? We’re midway through January and the same messaging from the players comes up after significant losses.

“Going back to the drawing board. Being tougher in practice, being harder in practice, going 100% in practice,” Reneau added following the loss to Rutgers. “When you’re shooting shots, taking every shot like it’s game shots. In practice everything has to be game speed from here on out so we get the game representation that we need in practice. So, when we come out in games it’s like shooting a regular three point shot. Just everything has to be game speed from here on out.”

16 games in and it’s a message that was discussed earlier this season — going harder in practice, playing with more energy, etc.

“We’ve got two freshmen starting, so we’ve got to kind of pull those guys along. It starts with me being the most experienced guy, so I’ve got to do a great job and do better in practice and come — leading into games, to help lead and we get into game time just be ready to go and play hard,” Galloway said last month after IU’s win against Maryland.

“Yeah, Coach has got strict on us. Practice has been hard. We really got to step our focus up in practice and step our whole attitude or our approach towards practice, and then once we do that, we should be fine and ready to go,” Reneau added during week two of the season.

And discussed more.

“We have to create our own energy, especially coming out the gate in the game, and this won’t be a problem all year, trust me. We will pick our energy up. This was definitely a lesson,” Anthony Walker said following the one-point win over Morehead State. “There is no lesser opponent in college basketball, so this is definitely a lesson, and we’ll be the boss of our own energy for the rest of the year. Trust me on that one.

“Anybody can beat anybody on any given night, especially in college basketball. Just getting our energy up, getting our main guys going …”

And even again just last week.

“We’ve been competitive off and on. I just gotta get us competitive for 40 minutes,” Woodson said following the loss to Nebraska. “ … That’s how you’re going to have to play on the road on the Big Ten.”

Relaying the message is the consistent part. But when will this team understand the message? It hasn’t worked up to this point.

Who will step up for this team and make sure the message is understood?

A lot falls on the coaches, yes. But at some point it falls on the players — both vocally in practice and during games. In live action and in timeouts.

Besides — player led teams are the most successful when it comes to reaching the goals and achieving the aspirations as a collective unit.

This is a group of players, not a collective unit and certainly not a team. Time to put up or quit talking. Because the talking isn’t working.

SEE ALSO: ‘I got to get them over the hump’: Talk is cheap. Postseason hopes slimming as inconsistent play continues to haunt Indiana basketball

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Alec Lasley is the owner of Hoosier Illustrated, a comprehensive site covering news, updates and recruiting for Indiana University athletics. Alec has covered Indiana for six years and is a credentialed media member. He has previously worked for both Rivals and 247Sports.