No, Indiana Struggling This Much Was Not Predictable (Because Xavier Johnson Struggling This Much Was Not Predictable)
The splits between IU's performance when Xavier Johnson plays near his established track record and when he doesn't are astonishing -- and help explain why this IU season has been such a struggle.
As Indiana’s 2023-24 men’s basketball season has gone from bad to worse, I’ve seen and heard some revisionist history about the offseason projections for this team.
It goes a little something like this:
“Well, you fans vastly overrated how good this team could be with all of its question marks and ill-fitting pieces. And now that they are predictably falling short of these outrageous expectations, you’re being harsher than necessary. You should have seen this coming all along!”
That’s a composite, paraphrased quote, not a direct one from anyone. But it sums up an emerging sentiment from the chorus of folks who always seem ready to blame Indiana fans when the Indiana men’s basketball team falls short of reasonable expectations.
So let me make an unequivocal statement to disabuse these college hoops vultures of such an insidious and incorrect brain worm:
No, Indiana being ranked #100 in KenPom on February 6th was not predictable before the season started.
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There was not one fan or analyst — local or national — who predicted Indiana would be this bad. (At least none that I saw.) Even the most pessimistic of observers expected Indiana to be above the Big Ten basement and more respectable than what we’ve actually been.
So what happened? Why are people so quick with I-told-you-sos that are correct directionally (Indiana is worse than the general consensus expected) but still way off in magnitude (no one thought it would be this bad)?
It’s fairly simple: Xavier Johnson has been less productive than anyone could have predicted.
Everyone knew how important Xavier Johnson would be to this rebuilding season
It’s not that X’s impact on this roster wasn’t understood. Every serious IU observer knew that X would be the most important player on the roster this season, and that there was at least some risk in terms of how he’d bounce back from last season’s injury.
But when a guy has a well-established track record in two high-major conferences of being, at minimum, a solid point guard, you don’t expect him to completely crater as a 6th-year senior.
Here are Xavier’s career averages as of right now, with 143 games played in the ACC and Big Ten:
(Note: for ease of data gathering, these numbers include this season’s performance. Thus, they are all down a tick from what his career averages were before the season, but you can still get the larger point.)
Those aren’t great numbers, but they are certainly higher than whatever replacement level would be for a college point guard.
So it was perfectly fair to expect X to at least be able to deliver production at or near his career averages in his sixth season, and third playing in Mike Woodson’s system.
Now, was it taking a massive leap of faith to expect X to make a jump in his development coming off injury and playing with so many new teammates? Yeah, in hindsight it really was.
I’m certainly more guilty than anyone of talking myself into the extreme positive end of the potential spectrum with X — claiming he would be an All-Big Ten player and one of the best point guards in the country. And if that happened, the logic went, because of how important X was to the overall makeup of the team, Indiana could potentially be a top-half team in the conference with the upside to be dangerous in March because of the talent and high-ceiling youth.
That all sounds patently absurd now. Some people felt it was absurd at the time. And that’s fair. I hoped X would have a more mature approach to the game after getting to sit and watch while injured last season ... and I was wrong.
And while I may never truly be able to properly govern my optimistic nature when it comes to making offseason predictions, I am taking some valuable lessons from this experience when it comes to trusting a player who has shown himself to be volatile throughout his career — even if the overall career numbers are good.
But here’s the thing: I made my predictions, as did anyone else feeling optimistic about the Hoosiers, fully understanding and stating all the caveats that led to Indiana being ranked #50 in KenPom before the season:
The built-in volatility of Xavier Johnson
Needing Trey Galloway to excel as a primary scoring guard
The awkward fit of Mgbako-Reneau-Ware in lineups together
The challenges of playing a two-big lineup
The downside risk of trusting CJ and Kaleb to take sophomore leaps
The uncertainty of Gabe Cupps’ readiness to play significant minutes
The red flags many of us noted about Woody’s style and philosophy during his first two seasons
The need to replace the leadership of Trayce, Race, and Miller
The need to replace the skillset of Jalen Hood-Schifino, or rework the offense to account for not having it
None of these questions and challenges were unknown, which is why everyone expected some early blips, bumps, and bruises followed by the team rounding into form down the stretch and being a competitive player in the Big Ten come February and March.
Again, this is why Indiana could be found anywhere from 35th to 50th in the metrics, and why most objective prognostications often had Indiana somewhere in the back half of the Big Ten’s soft middle and assuming plenty of bubble talk come March.
While I personally was more optimistic, I understood these kinds of outcomes were within the realm of reasonable possibility because most of those lukewarm projections were being made with most of the potential downside already baked in.
But what none of us knew or expected is that Xavier Johnson’s production would be so far below his well-established career standards.