B1G basketball notebook: IU's Xavier Johnson could return Sunday
Xavier Johnson could still play again this season. And it could be as soon as Sunday, when Indiana hosts Michigan in the regular-season finale in Assembly Hall.
The veteran point guard could give the Hoosiers a boost as they head into the postseason, especially if he’s able to quickly return to form. Johnson has missed a majority of the season — he last played at Kansas Dec. 17, when he suffered a foot injury, then had surgery — but has been on the sideline during games and is looking more and more like he might be ready soon.
“He’s been on the floor here recently,” coach Mike Woodson told media before Indiana’s Tuesday night loss to Iowa. “We’re still waiting to get the final approval from the doctors and training staff to make sure that he’s ready to go. He won’t play (vs. the Hawkeyes). And then we’ll have a few days to continue to work with him, and then we’ll see and gauge it on Sunday to see where he is.”
Before the injury, Johnson was averaging 9.9 points and 5 assists per game, plus was one of the Hoosiers’ better perimeter defenders. In his absence, freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino has taken over at the point, and blossomed, including his gigantic 35-point outburst in the win at Purdue on Saturday. But if Johnson returns, then perhaps IU can move Hood-Schifino back off the ball on occasion and give the Hoosiers the dynamic backcourt they envisioned before the season. But that might depend on how quickly Johnson can find his groove again.
“If he comes back Sunday, he won’t be able to play long minutes,” said Woodson, himself familiar with missing games due to injury as an Indiana senior. “So the whole thing with me is chemistry. You don’t want to mess up chemistry. But all I can relate to is how did coach (Bob) Knight feel when I was out all those games and I came back? He gave me 40 minutes a game, and I wish I could give X 40 minutes, but that’s not being real. So I just have to gauge it and see how it’s going early in the game and then make the adjustments from there.”
Can Purdue recover this week?
Purdue has won a share of the Big Ten title but can clinch it outright with a win at Wisconsin Thursday night or one at home vs. Illinois Sunday.
But the Boilermakers have their sights beyond the Big Ten, too, as they try to hold on to a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But to do that, they’re going to have to recover from a late-season malaise that has seen them drop 4 of their last 6 games. Lately, the issues have arisen after halftime, when opponents are pummeling Purdue on their path to runaway victories. On average, Purdue has been outscored by 14 points in the 2nd halves of its last 3 losses: At Northwestern, at Maryland and home to Indiana.
Perhaps the Boilermakers have become too reliant on big man Zach Edey, particularly as their 2 freshman guards — Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer — have been inconsistent during the last several weeks. Purdue has suffered stretches, and it’s not only the rookies, where it has struggled to hit shots, and that happened against the Hoosiers, when the Boilermakers made only 5-of-23 3-pointers. In the 3 recent losses, Purdue is only 12-58 from long range (20.6 percent).
“I have ultimate confidence in my teammates. Always have. Always will,” Edey said after Purdue’s loss Saturday to IU. “It doesn’t matter if we win or lose. It doesn’t matter if shots go in or shots don’t. It’s a great group of guys I am surrounded with and we’re just going to figure it out.”
The 1st test — and 1st opportunity to win the title outright — comes at Wisconsin Thursday night, with the Badgers traditionally one of the Big Ten’s best defenses with a style that forces opponents to be patient in finding good opportunities to score. If Purdue makes a course correction vs. Wisconsin and Illinois this week, it’ll likely hold a No. 1 seed for the tourney, regardless of the Big Ten Tournament outcome. But any losses this week might put that in doubt.
As the final few days of the regular season arrive, there are at least 3 bubble teams in the Big Ten to watch: Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State.
Can any of the trio find a way into the Field of 68?
As of Wednesday morning, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Badgers of one of his “Last 4 In,” as the second-to-last team in the field. Michigan, which stunned the Badgers with a last-second comeback this weekend, is among the “First 4 Out” while Penn State is in the next group of 4 on the outside.
But fortunes can swing quickly. Wisconsin (16-12 overall, 8-10 Big Ten, 72 Net ranking) hosts Purdue Thursday night, then travels to Minnesota Sunday. Michigan (17-12, 11-7, 54) is at Illinois Thursday, then at Indiana Sunday. And Penn State (17-12, 8-10, 59) is at Northwestern tonight then hosts Maryland Sunday.
For any of the trio, 2 wins this week, followed by another W in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago next week, might be enough to earn a ticket, depending on results elsewhere around the country.
Tominaga’s last dance?
Big Ten fans might be seeing the last of Keisei Tominaga in a Nebraska uniform.
The Japanese import, who has been a delight to watch in the 2nd half of the Big Ten season as he’s emerged to help the Cornhuskers to relevancy, walked on Nebraska senior day Tuesday night, even though he still has a year of eligibility remaining. Coach Fred Hoiberg says discussions have begun with Tominaga about his future, but a decision will not come until after the season. But if this is the end of the road at Nebraska, at least Tominaga got to walk on senior day with his parents in attendance, as they’ve been for the last couple games in Lincoln.
“You just try to do everything you can to help them make the best decision possible for (a player’s) future,” Hoiberg said before Tuesday’s game, when Nebraska lost to Michigan State.
Tominaga has scored in double-figures in 8 straight games for Nebraska, bringing his average up to nearly 13 per outing, and he’s been a major reason why the Cornhuskers had won 4 straight before Tuesday night’s loss.