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Five matchups that will define Mike Woodson's first season

It’s hard to be the head coach at a school like Indiana. The expectations are always going to be high. 

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

If anyone was truly made for the job, most would be quick to say it has to be someone with Indiana in his or her veins. 

Mike Woodson has Indiana in his veins and there’s a lot of hype and excitement surrounding the coach's first season courtside at Assembly Hall. There are always going to be some games that people circle heading into the season for obvious reasons, but here are some games that people might look back on in March and could define year one of Woodson’s tenure. 

Let's get into it. 

1. Syracuse 

On Nov. 30 as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the Hoosiers will travel to upstate New York to face the Orange in the Carrier Dome. The Orange made a run into the Sweet 16 last season and are always a contender come March. 

This matchup intrigues me most because not only is it IU’s first big non-conference test, but it’s also the team's first road matchup and the Carrier Dome is gonna be rocking. I also think this game will test Woodson’s coaching and adjustment to the college level. 

Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim runs a 2-3 matchup zone. The 2-3 zone clogs the paint and forces teams to shoot. And no, they don’t just switch into it at certain points of the game. They run it the entire game. This is a cold shooting team's worst nightmare and with how poorly IU shot the ball last year, if Hoosier shooters can’t find the bottom of the net it’s going to be a rough night. 

How is Woodson going to find a way to get Trayce Jackson-Davis and the other big men involved? 

You have to find holes in the zone and move the ball well. That’s the only way opportunities in the paint will open up. 

The matchup against the Orange will prove a lot not only about the team and its improvements but also a lot about Woodson’s in-game coaching adjustments and preparation.  

2. Purdue

Archie Miller never beat Purdue. Not once. 

If Woodson can manage a win over the in-state rival in his first year at IU, he’s going to win over the fan base. 

Purdue is loaded with returning talent and that’s the main reason it's a preseason top-10 team. The Boilermakers have dominated Indiana in recent years including two rough losses last season. I wonder how different Archie Miller’s tenure as a Hoosier would have been if he had beaten Purdue. It’s not a rivalry if only one team wins. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. 

Trayce Jackson-Davis during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers and the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, IN. (Missy Minear/Indiana Hoosiers)

It will be key for Indiana to win the battles down low against the Boilermakers. This will be a TALL task as 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams returns for his senior season and 7-foot-4 Zach Edey gears up to be a rebounding and shot blocking machine. See what I did there?

Not many teams in the country have the size that Purdue does and Woodson's game plan is going to be critical. Whether it’s Jan. 20 or March 5 you have to think about how the results will impact Woody’s first year. 

3. Wisconsin 

The Hoosiers haven’t won a game at Wisconsin since Jan. 25, 1998. 

And Indiana faces the Badgers as its first conference road opponent in early December. 

Yes, since the 1998 season Indiana is 0-19 in Madison. It’s safe to say that this game is going to say a lot about how Indiana’s season will go. The Badgers are picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference this season and it should be a matchup in which Indiana is favored.

The players who were on last year's team may remember the 80-73 double-overtime loss and Woodson is going to have to prove himself early in a tough environment on the road. 

It’s important for teams, Indiana especially, to get off to a quick start and set the tone early. The Hoosiers have struggled coming from behind or getting past a rough start in recent years. Is that something that will change in the Woodson era?

If Indiana can set the tone early, it could be smooth sailing and a big win for Woodson in his first Big Ten road environment. 

4. Michigan 

As much as I wanted to keep the Wolverines off of this list it’s really hard not to. Michigan is easily the preseason Big Ten favorite and the Wolverines come to Bloomington on Jan. 23. 

Indiana is expected to be an underdog in the matchup and a strong performance could turn the tide of Indiana’s season depending on where the Hoosiers stand. This game's going to be won down low but it’ll be a tough task with second team All-American center Hunter Dickinson on the opposing bench. 

Miller also never beat the Wolverines so it would be an extremely impressive start if Woody could pull it off. 

Although, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Indiana just needs to impress. A win and Woodson has that resumé-building win for the NCAA Tournament. A loss and people may begin asking more questions based on where the Hoosiers really stand. 

5. St. John’s 

I struggled and struggled thinking of who to put here at the five spot, but I’m going with the Red Storm. 

Julian Champagnie decided to return to St. John's after withdrawing his name from the 2021 NBA Draft. (Photo: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

This game is in less than two weeks. That’s pretty crazy and I honestly believe this game is going to be very important when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding. St. John’s is a fringe tournament team (as IU has been as well in recent years) and this head-to-head could decide who gets in. 

For St. John’s, a non-conference win on the road in Assembly Hall would be huge and for Indiana, who will be favored, a win means survival and expectations. 

This matchup signifies the ability for Woodson to win the games he should win. Something Miller never quite got good at. 

Guard Julian Champagnie averaged 20 points per game last season and was lethal from beyond the arc. Game planning for him will be critical but for Woodson, the non-conference home games where you’re favored, you just have to win. 

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