Life gets complicated for IU men’s basketball

Coach Mike Woodson had to become Judge Mike Woodson in a hurry and carry out an unappealable Supreme Court sentence immediately.

What shaped up as a fairly routine Big Ten men’s basketball match-up against Northwestern Tuesday night might produce a ripple effect of loss doubled or tripled.

Indiana fell, 59-51, in Evanston, Illinois, a defeat that really should have been a little-sweat victory on the court, but an encounter that became oh-so-complex by the final buzzer.

Beforehand, the Hoosiers, 16-6, were favored to beat the Wildcats, 11-10. Or before IU coach Woodson whacked five players for “disciplinary reasons,” dishing out one-game suspensions.

College sports teams stopped explaining individuals’ rules violations some years ago and Woodson said only, “I’m not going to give you all the in-house things. They broke rules and they were punished for it.”

“They” are Xavier Johnson, Parker Stewart, Tamar Bates, Khristian Lander and Michael Durr. With Rob Phinesse still out with an injury, Indiana’s bench was thinner than a piece of copy paper. This combination of factors left IU without a point guard.

What did they do? It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that it could not be anything major because otherwise the suspensions would be for longer than one game. Gossip and smart money centered on curfew violations, perhaps combined with ill-advised partying on the road trip, with everyone tied for last place in the good-judgment category.

The IU quintet apparently broke no state laws, only Mike Woodson laws. As Woodson said, “You set rules that guys gotta obey as a team.” Arguably, this was the first crisis of Woodson’s first-year college coaching administration.

By benching about half of his team, including guard starters Johnson and Stewart, Woodson had to know his hardline response to players’ immature actions jeopardized the squad’s chances to beat Northwestern.

He chose principle over win-at-all-costs. This is the type of response fans say they want to see in a coach, being the adult in the room. In theory, at least, although they would prefer victories pile up like firewood.

Woodson could have chosen a different punishment, but somehow, making players run 100 back-and-forths in the gym does not seem to carry the same weight. He could have divvied up the suspensions, three guys one game, two guys another, so as not to penalize the remaining innocent parties on the team. But he chose swift and emphatic justice.

Woodson demonstrated to the violators actions have consequences. Yet ironically his own actions might have unintended consequences under the heading of no good deed goes unpunished.

At times it seemed possible the iron man lineup left over might pull out the win over Northwestern, but several of the holdovers showed visible fatigue without much, or any, rest as the game wound down.

Five Hoosiers played at least 34 of the game’s 40 minutes with Trayce Jackson-Davis in for a game-high 39. Race Thompson scored 14 points, Jackson-Davis and Trey Galloway 13 points apiece, but the offense stagnated, especially in the second half, and everyone seemed a step out of synch.

The loss left Indiana at 7-6 in league play, 16-7 overall, with the Hoosiers’ next three looming games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State, all of them nationally ranked and two of them to be met on the road.

IU could play well and still lose all of them and a losing record in conference and 16-10 overall doesn’t present as pretty a picture for those who make the choices to fill out the NCAA tournament field.

That is why the Northwestern loss could hover over the big picture and cause more damage than anyone might have thought. Ironically, Woodson doing the right thing could result in the wrong ending.

And fans with short memories will forget why Indiana lost to Northwestern, only that it did. And fans will only fixate on Indiana not being invited into the NCAAs, only that they weren’t.

Lew Freedman is a writer for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]