BLOOMINGTON — From his earliest days as IU head coach, Mike Woodson made two planning promises.
First, he wouldn’t push his team too early, as Woodson incorporated his methods and philosophies into his program. The calendar reflected this, the Hoosiers finished last season with a featherweight non-conference strength of the schedule.
But there was also that second promise — that once Woodson was convinced those roots had sunk deep, he would take IU to the biggest stages he could find.
“If we can play the Kentuckys and Kansases again before we get to the Big Ten,” Woodson said last year, “then I’m open to it.”
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As the Hoosiers’ 2022-23 schedule takes shape, Woodson is sticking to his word.
Already, IU has committed to a home-and-home series with defending champion Kansas for the next two seasons. The Hoosiers will travel to Lawrence on December 17, with Kansas making the return trip in 2023.
Now IU is in the process of adding Arizona – last season’s absolute Pac-12 champion – to its schedule as well. While IndyStar believes the details aren’t finalized, the plan is to play the Wildcats in Las Vegas on December 10, a move first reported by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.
Based on the event’s established rotation, the Hoosiers were set to host an ACC team in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this season after traveling to Syracuse last winter. Assuming no one is asked to play road games in consecutive years, Wake Forest, Virginia and perhaps most notably North Carolina would be among IU’s most prominent potential opponents.
And while the pairings have yet to be announced, based on comments made by then-IU coach Tom Crean early in the series’ seven-year run, the Hoosiers appear likely to be reinstated in the Gavitt Games this season.
The Gavitt Games, which began in 2015 as a partnership between the Big Ten and Big East to televise quality matchups early on the calendar, will enter the last of those seven years this winter. Early in its existence, Crean said publicly that IU committed to performing five times in those first seven years. The Hoosiers have played at the Gavitt Games four times in the last six seasons, so unless things change, they should do it again this winter.
Given that they’ve hosted three of those four times — Creighton in 2015, Marquette in 2018 and St. John’s last season — it stands to reason that the Hoosiers can expect to tour when they play for 2022-23 are on schedule. They’ve also traveled to Seton Hall (2017) and narrowed down the list of possible opponents. IU is yet to face Big East stars Villanova, Georgetown or Providence in this event, and the Hoosiers have yet to play Butler either.
This final matchup was presumably precluded by the existence of the Crossroads Classic in the past, and thus IU and Butler were guaranteed to meet at least every two years. But with the dissolution of the Classic (IU’s home and home with Kansas now filling that gap in the schedule), organizers at Gavitt Games would appear free to pair the Hoosiers and Bulldogs.
Although Woodson and his staff fill out the remainder of their 11-game non-conference schedule, their work so far sends two important messages.
First, the upcoming non-conference strength of the schedule should be stronger than the previous one. Landing in the 300s nationally, KenPom says, wrapped an ankleweight around the Hoosiers’ NCAA tournament resume last season, winning at home against St. John’s and on neutral ground against Notre Dame could not relax . When IU was only one of the last four teams to get into the NCAA tournament, it felt in part like a selection board acknowledgment of how unchallenged the Hoosiers were before the Big Ten game.
Potential Big East or ACC pairings will likely be announced next month once the dust settles on the pre-NBA draft process and rosters are settled. If Trayce Jackson-Davis decides to return to school for his senior year, IU should expect top billing and tough opponents in both series.
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All it would take for IU to face a non-conference schedule this season that included three Final Four entrants and three reigning conference champions would be a trip to Villanova at the Gavitt Games and a visit to UNC at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Both matchups are entirely plausible. Adding just one would make this IU the toughest November-December list in recent memory. The Hoosiers would need some wins, of course, to make it worthwhile, but the overall strength of the schedule would benefit IU in March.
Games like this have another advantage.
It stands to reason that IU’s games against Kansas and Arizona (assuming they’re completed) will receive top billing on two of the most important televised dates of college basketball’s nonconference season. The second and third Saturdays in December — after the regular college football season but before Christmas — are popular for marquee college basketball games each year. Few will have more appeal than Indiana’s encounters with the Jayhawks and Wildcats.
Combine that with a possible primetime visit from a high-profile ACC opponent, and IU can boast of having appeared in some of college basketball’s biggest non-conference games, for both current players and recruits. When you play in a conference whose reputation can falter with NBA front offices, adding important dates outside of the conference is very appealing to top prospects looking for showcase opportunities in their 1-2 years of college.
Whatever his motivations, Woodson has kept his promise. Assuming the Hoosiers are back at the Gavitt Games as expected – and considering they have two league games left before the new year – it translates into the toughest pre-Christmas schedule IU has faced in recent years, and also the most intriguing.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.