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Mike Woodson knew IU basketball needed better guards. Portal produced.


“We really needed to strengthen our backcourt, and I think we did that.”

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  • IU added guards Myles Rice (Washington State), Kanaan Carlyle (Stanford) through the transfer portal.

BORDEN – Mike Woodson turned fans’ heads last week when he waxed philosophical about the importance of strong guard play in college basketball during his media session for an NIL event at Huber’s Orchard and Winery in southern Indiana.

“I learned in this short time of being in college, you win with good guard play,” Woodson said. “It’s great to have big guys that can play and do the things we’ve done the last three seasons with the bigs we’ve coached, but you win with good perimeter play and good guard play.”

Suggestions Woodson didn’t discover the need for talented guards until March and missed the crucial underlying point.

More: Mike Woodson thinks he finally has an IU team that can play like he coached in the NBA

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The response seemed to imply that Woodson had learned some sort of lesson, as if he chose to start last season with poor guard play. What he chose, however, was to put his trust in places and people where it ultimately did not fit. The lesson learned from last season is perhaps even more valuable: not what to do, but how, and therefore what is gained from the end result.

The virtues of a talented backcourt likely weren’t lost on Woodson when Xavier Johnson struggled with injuries. Or when he realized he was asking too much of Gabe Cupps too soon. Or when, after a loss at Nebraska in early January, he described his guards as “terrible.”

And certainly not when his team’s late-season surge — a five-game win streak and a .500 finish in league play — was built around Trey Galloway’s emergence as the kind of two-way, ball-screen attacking, playmaking guard Indiana. missed much of the winter.

While Woodson made these claims a few months ago from a position of weakness, he can now make them from a position of potential strength.

Galloway still needs to undergo some ground rehabilitation after offseason knee surgery. But Woodson and his staff added Washington State transfer (and reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year) Myles Rice to that guard rotation through the portal. Indiana plucked Kanaan Carlyle, formerly of Stanford, in the same manner. And Woodson added wing depth in McDonald’s All American Bryson Tucker and Illinois transfer Luke Goode, meaning he should never have to go exceptionally small unless he wants to.

Woodson certainly sold himself short at guard this past winter, with the Hoosiers’ depth issues exposed by just a handful of injuries combined with failed individual development. Their drive to chase Rice and Carlyle into the portal resembled that of a team eager not to repeat the same mistake twice.

“We came out of last season and didn’t have (Johnson) the games he missed. We really needed to strengthen our backcourt,” Woodson said, “and I think we did that.”

Ultimately, Woodson gambled on Johnson finding the best form of 2022 again in 2024 after losing much of 2023 to injuries. It never happened, largely because the bad luck of injury struck Johnson again.

IU’s sixth-year guard battled foot and elbow issues, and even once he was healthy, he never really looked like he could find the rhythm a good point guard needs — the rhythm he undeniably had during the furious late run of the Hoosiers to the NCAA tournament in Woodson’s first season.

Bringing Johnson back for a sixth season made it harder to find quality guards in the portal, with fewer minutes to spread, and development elsewhere on Indiana’s roster hasn’t come as hoped.

Towards the end of the season, Galloway and Anthony Leal were playing good minutes, and Cupps gave Woodson his best shot. But the kind of backcourt impact Woodson needed came too late to make a meaningful difference in a season that was ultimately spent outside the tournament.

In several ways, the IU coach has tried as much as possible this spring to protect his roster as much as possible against a recurrence of those problems in the winter.

He deepened his guard rotation, retaining Galloway, Leal and Cupps, while adding proven big-impact players in Rice and Carlyle. He’s getting Jakai Newton healthy after a year of working through a knee problem. And, as previously mentioned, he gave himself a lot more lineup flexibility with a deeper wing, meaning that unless matchups require it, Woodson will have a six-man backcourt that only requires two players on the floor at any time.

Woodson’s entire roster is now in Bloomington, with offseason workouts beginning this week. Woodson himself has always sounded like a coach who will use the coming weeks to solidify his vision for his team, with roles and rotations very much on the table in June and July.

Either way, he’s given himself more to work with in his backcourt. The lesson learned wasn’t that Indiana needs better guards. That’s how the Hoosiers got there.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.