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Early returns are in and Indiana basketball is reaping the benefits from its young but talented front court



Indiana basketball front court
The Indiana basketball young but talented front court has answered every call and exceeded the early expectations. (Indiana Athletics)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — One of the biggest questions coming into this season was how the front court would look for the Indiana basketball program and how quickly it would come together. While there was a lot of ‘untapped potential’ — there was an excitement level of what that group could turn into.

Through the first few weeks of the season, it has answered every call and exceeded the early expectations.

That front court production took the next step in Sunday’s win over Harvard.

The trio of Kel’el Ware, Malik Reneau and Mackenzie Mgbako were all firing on all cylinders, something it hadn’t done yet this year. That was in large part to Mgbako’s breakthrough performance after a slow start to the season.

Indiana’s front line combined for 63 points on 27-of-40 from the field and 20 rebounds.

“We scored 50 points the paint and a lot of that came out of the zone,” Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “Our bigs have worked pretty well together when teams play zone against us … you have to combat it, execute and put the ball in the hole.”

Indiana’s front line stats were as follows:

Kel’el Ware: 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks

Mackenzie Mgbako: 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting and 8 rebounds

Malik Reneau: 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 4 rebounds and 5 assists

They combined for 63 of Indiana’s 89 points and 27 of the 36 made field goals.

Ware’s 92.3 percent from the field was the highest field goal percentage by an Indiana basketball player this century — with a minimum 10 attempts — per the Big Ten.

For Ware and Reneau, their Sunday performance was nothing new. Ware is averaging a team-high 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Reneau is second with 15.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Reneau’s 3.3 assists per game are a team high. It’s a new development in his game that is a byproduct of playing behind Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson last season — and what coined the term ‘buddy ball’.

“It’s great. Malik saw a lot of that last year with Race (Thompson) and Trayce (Jackson-Davis) and he hasn’t forgotten it,” Woodsons said of the Ware and Reneau connection. “The few minutes he played last year, he was on the tail end of some of that buddy ball with Trayce or even Race. He and the big fella (Ware), they’ve kind of connected now a little bit, which is kind of nice to see especially when teams play zone. You have to be able to make plays inside to be competitive.”

Reneau already has 20 assists this season. He had 27 all of last year.

The majority of those 20 assists have gone to Ware — who through six games has three of his highest scoring outputs in his career.

“He made some shots that were straight from Malik. He fed him a few times, he hit a few offensive put-backs, hit a couple of turnaround jump shots, made some free throws. He’s capable of doing that,” Woodsons said of Ware. “We’ve just got to keep him in a good place and playing hard. I thought in New York in the UConn game, he didn’t play hard enough. I’m not saying that the reason why we lost, but he just didn’t play hard enough to me. I thought the Louisville game he came back and played a little bit harder. Tonight he played really hard and it was kind of nice to see him respond.”

While Ware and Reneau have shown their consistency this season, the biggest talking point heading into Friday’s Big Ten opener against Maryland is the emergence of freshman wing Mackenzie Mgbako. The five-star freshman has had his struggles to begin the season but Sunday may have been the breakthrough he needed.

Mgbako had totaled just 25 points in the first five games this season before his 18 points on Sunday.

Related: Mackenzie Mgbako shines in Indiana basketball’s win over Harvard

“Mackenzie just did what he was doing when he first got here,” Woodson said. “He had a game where he figured it out and he’s just gotta continue to grow, continue to work and then just let it happen.

“He’s a freshman and you guys expect so much from these young kids and it’s a learning process when you come out of high school … He’s got a ways to go, but tonight was progress. You just got to continue to work and if you do that I think good things will happen.”

Mgbako’s offensive output was much-needed but the one part still lacking is his ability to convert from three. He entered just 1-of-13 from three and was just 1-of-5 on Sunday. His first two outside of the paint were originally counted as 3s before getting changed to 2s.

“Well again, we were 4-of-16 from 3 (tonight),” Woodson said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight and still put 89 points on the board. We shoot them every day and guys have to feel good about them going in. They can’t hope it’s going to go in.”

Shooting is not strictly a Mgbako issue, however. Indiana’s four made 3s against Harvard tied a season-high. Indiana is now just 19-of-79 from three — 24.1 percent. Kel’el Ware is tied for the team-high in percentage going 4-of-8 through six games.

Trey Galloway — who shot 46.2 percent a season ago is just 3-of-18 this year. CJ Gunn, who came in with the reputation as a shooter, is just 2-of-28 in his short career thus far.

On the season, Indiana has now been outscored 174-57 on 3s. They rank 354th in three-point attempts and 360th in total percent of points coming from three (12.7 percent).

On the flip side, IU’s front court combines for 40.2 points and 15 made field goals per game, that accounts for 53.6 percent and 57.1 percent, respectively, of the total points and made field goals per game for Indiana basketball.

So while the front court has answered every call, it’s now up to the backcourt for Indiana to step up. Led by two captains and veteran players, that unit has been underwhelming at best to start the year. Its next test is Friday with a hungry Maryland team coming to Bloomington.

SEE ALSO: Kel’el Ware has record performance for an Indiana basketball player in Sunday’s win

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Alec Lasley is the owner of Hoosier Illustrated, a comprehensive site covering news, updates and recruiting for Indiana University athletics. Alec has covered Indiana for six years and is a credentialed media member. He has previously worked for both Rivals and 247Sports.