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‘He works on it in practice and it translates to the game’: Mackenzie Mgbako stars as Indiana Basketball takes down Minnesota

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Jan 12, 2024; Bloomington, Indiana, USA; Indiana Hoosiers forward Mackenzie Mgbako (21) shoots the ball while Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Cam Christie (24) defends in the first half at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. © Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After a lackluster effort on Tuesday in Piscataway, New Jersey, Indiana basketball returned home to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and bounced back in a major way, taking down Minnesota 74-62.

The Hoosiers improved to 12-5 on the season and 4-2 in Big Ten play as freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako shines in the victory, leading all scorers with a career-high 19 points. Mgbako shot 6/12 from the field and 2-0f-4 from beyond the arc.

“I thought he was aggressive right from the start,” Mike Woodson said about Mgbako’s performance. I thought our whole team was aggressive on both ends of the floor. He got some good looks early that he made. I ran a couple plays for him that he was able to knock shots down, and the way they double-team, it opened him up on the backside, as well, to get shots.”

After a rough start to his Indiana basketball career, Mgbako has found a bit of groove as of late. Since the start of December (11 games), Mgbako has averaged 11.8 points per game and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 40.8 percent from three.

In the six games before he was averaging 7.2 points per game while shooting 11.1 percent from three.

He’s scored in double figures in 10 of the last 12 games.

“Well, it’s just not Mackenzie. You’ve got to understand that these young guys, they take a while to develop,” Woodson said about Mgbako’s improvement. “They come out of high school, out of the AAU programs that they play in, and it’s not just that easy to walk into college basketball and be great. If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Mgbako’s improvement from the beginning of the season to now might remind fans of another five-star freshman’s improvement with Indiana basketball.

Like Mgbako, Jalen Hood-Schifino came into the 2022-23 season with high expectations as a freshman but struggled early on. Hood-Schifino eventually put it all together and had an incredible freshman season after his slow start.

Mgbako’s improvement from the start of the year to now is a testament to his work ethic in practice.

“He’s put the work in. He’s continuing to work, along with the rest of our young players,” Woodson said about Mgbako’s growth. “All we can do as coaches is continue to teach and push and try to get as much out of them as we can as we continue this journey.”

Tonight Mgbako made it a point of emphasis to attack the rim from the opening minutes of the game.

“Even in practice I always encourage [Mgbako] just to go to the rim, get fouled, try to create anything that can get us a bucket, even in game,” Kel’el Ware said about his teammate postgame. “So he works on it in practice and it translates to the game and just being more aggressive.”

Mgbako’s aggressiveness was rewarded, as he shot a team-high seven free throws, making five. As an 85.4% free throw shooter, the more he can get to the line the better it is for Indiana basketball’s offense.

Mgbako played a season-high 34 minutes Friday and a big reason for that is his improvement on the defensive end. At times Mgbako’s defensive struggles have made it hard for Woodson to rely on him in big spots, but his growth on that end has come from his attention to detail.

“I feel like I started off a little bit slow because the defense we’re running is a little bit different than what I learned in high school,” Mgbako said about his growth. “So just being able to just grow under Coach Woodson is really good.”

Mgbako’s effort and performance on defense have clearly improved, which has allowed Woodson to trust him more when it matters most. His improvement on that end of the floor has been big for an Indiana team that needs his shooting ability on the floor as much as possible.

“My defense, keeping my head on a swivel, talking on defense, and just being confident. I feel like those are the things that are helping me out,” Mgbako said. “Just locking up on defense. I feel like defense is the No. 1 thing he’s been trying to harp on because I feel like defense creates offense.”

Indiana basketball heads into a critical part of their schedule with three straight games against AP Top-25 teams, starting with a matchup against in-state rival and the number-one team in the country, Purdue.

With the upcoming gauntlet beginning Tuesday, the Hoosiers will need this version of Mackenzie Mgbako moving forward as they continue to fight to make a run in the Big Ten and find some consistency.

SEE ALSO: Coach Q&A: Mike Woodson reacts to the Indiana basketball’s 74-62 win against Minnesota

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Drew Rosenberg is staff writer for HoosierIllustrated.com and hosts 'The Talkin' Bout the Hoosiers Podcast' covering Indiana University athletics. Drew graduated from Indiana University's Sports Media program in 2024.

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