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Mike Woodson, Isiah Thomas and the newfound love in Indiana basketball

After bringing the crowd to its feet at the 2021 edition of Hoosier Hysteria, former Hoosier and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas emotionally uttered three not so little words to former Indiana teammate and now head coach Mike Woodson as he left the court and they embraced. 

“I love you.”

In recent years, the word “love” has been missing from Indiana basketball. For years it seemed as if the program tried to emulate something that it never was and never could be. Well, since the head coaching change in late March, Indiana basketball has been surrounded by nothing but love. Whether it’s from Woodson, former players, current players, or the fans. It’s been love. 

Mike Woodson waves to the crowd at 2021 Hoosier Hysteria (Photo: IU Athletics)

Indiana Athletic Director Scott Dolson knew a culture change was needed when he decided to move on from Archie Miller to Mike Woodson. It’s pretty safe to say that since March, that culture has changed.

That love and change was noticeable on Monday’s basketball Media Day. All players and coaches spoke very highly of one another and in support of each other.

“He’s just a great person,” Indiana freshman Tamar Bates said about Woodson. 

All-American forward Trayce Jackson-Davis also spoke on his decision to come back to Indiana and his relationship with Woodson. 

“He came in and just brought a positive vibe…he convinced me to stay in 10 minutes,” the All-American said. 

Players mentioned the camaraderie they feel together as a group. Pittsburgh transfer point guard Xavier Johnson stated “we all love to be together.” Jackson-Davis also mentioned how the team doesn’t have in-groups and just enjoys spending time with each other. 

Jackson-Davis said it’s “probably the favorite team I’ve ever been on.” 

As for Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday, it was a new experience for many Hoosiers, including players and fans. Players were enjoying themselves, enjoying the atmosphere and most importantly enjoying each other’s presence. 

It was also the first Indiana basketball event back in Assembly Hall with fans since March 2020. Assembly Hall finally felt like home again. 

Trayce Jackson-Davis was the dunk contest winner, headlining the afternoon with a dunk jumping over freshman Logan Duncomb. Parker Stewart and Grace Berger won the 3-point contest. And last but not least, Rob Phinisee and Mackenzie Holmes won the skills competition.

Isiah Thomas at 2021 Hoosier Hysteria (Photo: IU Athletics)

During Thomas’ speech, the 1981 National Champion emphasized how horrible he felt for Woodson in the 1980 NCAA Tournament when No. 2 seed Hoosiers lost to No. 6 seed Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen. Woodson was a senior at the time. Thomas was not able to help bring Woodson a championship. 

That championship pursuit will continue for Woodson now as a coach at his alma mater. Yes, Indiana is a long way away from getting back to championship form, but the way you rebuild a program, a team and a fanbase is through culture — and in Indiana’s case, love. 

This affection displayed by Thomas to his former teammate encapsulates everything IU basketball has been for the past six months. 

Obviously it helps to perform well on the court and win games but Indiana is starting from the ground up — building what it hasn’t had and working to improve what it has had. It starts with culture and getting the players to buy in. It’s safe to say that Indiana’s players have bought in. If you just look at the numbers from last spring, it shows that. Indiana was able to keep all but one player who entered the transfer portal, flip Tamar Bates from Texas and land three incoming transfers. 

“He’s going to lay a foundation here again,” Thomas said.

Emphasis on the “again.” A winning foundation isn’t new to this program. It just needs to be found again. 

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