BLOOMINGTON – Every Indiana team for more than three decades has played with one overarching goal: hang a sixth national championship banner at Assembly Hall. For a long time, that was an obvious goal, but as the team has struggled in recent years, the quest has appeared more and more quixotic.
But new Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson wants his players to embrace that challenge, and the former Knicks and Hawks coach has instituted a new practice ritual, calling attention to those banners at the start of every workout.
“S---, every time we step out on the floor, before we break the huddle, I tell them to look at those Big Ten titles, look at the national titles,” Woodson said at Indiana Media Day on Monday at Assembly Hall. “There's history here, man. We're not here just to play, man. To me, there's always been a lot at stake here, even when I played here.”
This is why Woodson was hired. As a former player – Woodson played at IU from 1977 to 1980 – he knows the tradition and he knows the expectations. He does not plan to run from them.
“I got to push (the players) in that direction to make sure that they understand we're playing to win a Big Ten and a national title, nothing else, man,” Woodson said. “It's no good thinking any other way.”
After four straight seasons of missing the NCAA Tournament (plus one where the tournament was not played), the Hoosiers seemed to be far from competing for a national championship or even a Big Ten title when Woodson took the job in late March following the firing of Archie Miller.
Yet after a summer of practice – capped by a trip to the Bahamas for a couple of exhibition games against a professional team from Serbia – the Hoosiers seem to be buying what Woodson is selling.
“We talk about (winning championships) every single day,” forward Race Thompson said. “But we don't want to just talk about it, we want to be about it. We look at those banners before we work out, after we work out. We're working toward a bigger thing, bringing back basketball greatness to Indiana.
“It just motivates us every single day to come in here – even on days where it's tough or we're tired or whatever – you point up (to the rafters) and you just want to be better every single day.”
Putting those lofty expectations on players in Year 1 of a new system could create extra pressure for a group that is dealing with the burden of trying to shrug off one of the worst stretches for the program in recent memory.
But the players say they don't feel any pressure. Instead, they've spent the offseason talking about how positive the energy is around the team. All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis in March called the feeling a “light” after the team had “been in the dark for a while.”
“This team is by far right now my favorite team I've been on,” Jackson-Davis said Monday. “The last few years, we had little groups we would hang out with, but now it's our whole team, we do things as a team. It's full oriented around the team and I think that's really good for us.”
The positivity has seemingly extended to the student body. Two IU players said Monday they feel significantly more energy around campus this year than they have in the past.
Bloomington native Anthony Leal, the 2020 Indiana Mr. Basketball, admitted fans would be excited no matter how good the team is, but he feels a difference this fall.
“Our fans would be crazy if we were 0-32,” Leal said. “But especially with having a whole new reset and lot of buzz around the team, it's really positive, especially going around town and all the fans or people coming up for pictures. The vibes are really high and we're all just excited to get out and represent Indiana.”
The Hoosiers have won the offseason. Now the real work toward a banner begins.