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Indiana Basketball: 5 key players to watch in IU’s opening exhibition game



Indiana basketball players Kaleb Banks and Malik Reneau
Five players to watch for when Indiana basketball takes the court on Sunday for its opening exhibition. (Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times-USA TODAY NETWORK)

The Indiana basketball program hits the court for the first time in the 2023-24 preseason as it takes on University of Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon.

Indiana enters a new era of basketball in year three under Mike Woodson, but it’s one that has a lot of untapped potential.

While there won’t be a lot we will truly learn on Sunday, it’s about the little things that a player can build on heading into the season in just two weeks.

Here are five Indiana basketball players to watch for in Sunday’s matchup.

Kel’el Ware; Center

This is the first time fans will be able to see Ware in an Indiana basketball jersey. After missing some time this fall with a shoulder injury, he returned to action a few weeks ago and is one of the more intriguing players across all of college basketball. The 7-footer will fill the role that Trayce Jackson-Davis left. While different skills, Ware brings an elite shot blocking ability to the defense end, something that Indiana will miss from Jackson-Davis. During Indiana basketball media day, that was where Ware felt he would make the biggest immediate impact. Offensively, Ware has the ability to stretch the floor and show off his versatility in both pick and roll action and pick and pop.

“He’s a very versatile big,” Indiana basketball point guard Xavier Johnson said. “He can shoot threes and he can pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, so that’s big time in the pick-and-roll game with me. Trayce couldn’t pop as much, but Trayce was leading throughout the rim. I don’t think nobody could stop him. But Coach Woodson is going to get him on the same track as far as pick-and-roll game.”

The biggest question for Ware, that has been vastly overused this offseason, is his work ethic. Will Ware’s motor get to another level, a place it was nowhere near at Oregon? It needs to be for Indiana to be successful this season.

“Well, when I recruited that young man I told him, you cannot go back and get what happened the year before. You can’t,” Woodson said at Indiana basketball media day on Wednesday. “The word is out; they knocked you and said, hey, you’re lazy, you don’t work hard, and if you make a commitment to me, that’s got to change.”

If Ware can find some of the first-round NBA potential that he came to college with, it’ll be a great sign for Indiana this year.

Malik Reneau; Forward

Reneau returns to Indiana and is someone who is expected to take a major step up as a sophomore. Playing behind both Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis last season limited his minutes as did his inability to stay on the floor consistently due to foul trouble. His per-40 minute rate as a freshman was at 6.8 fouls. In order to see that sophomore jump, he needs to stay on the floor. One of the biggest ways he improved this offseason was with his body … and that’ll go hand-and-hand with his ability to not only draw more fouls, but also limit the fouls drawn on him.

“Being able to defend on the perimeter, which I’m — I’ve been in the gym working on my defensive side,” Reneau said this summer. “Really guarding the smaller guys when I switch on them. Being able to defend and stay away from putting my hands on them to avoid the ticky-tack fouls. Being aware of what I’m doing on the court and understanding that I can get those ticky-tack fouls when I put two hands as a defender.”

Reneau has always been effective and efficient when he’s been on the floor, so that shouldn’t be an issue. It’s the potential that he has when he sees extended minutes that intriguing. Indiana needs to get that from him in year two.

“The fact he’s got his body — his body is in much better shape than his freshman year and a lot of that had to do with the fact he stayed this summer and put the work in,” Woodson said at Big Ten Media Day. “I’m expecting big things out of him. He’s worked his butt off.”

CJ Gunn; Wing

CJ Gunn is probably the guy that Indiana needs to step up the most. The sophomore wing enters year two with a load of expectations and quite frankly, he needs to hit those for Indiana. While he shot the ball poorly as a freshman, his energy and defensive ability provided him minutes on the floor. His shooting is what is most intriguing about his potential, however. Indiana needs a legit knockdown shooter and Gunn showed that ability throughout his high school career.

“A lot of people go through their rough patches their freshman year… I can’t let it define me,” Gunn said about his struggles during Indiana basketball’s media day. “… I know the type of player I am and I know what I can do to benefit this team.

“Last year I rushed a lot of the shots I took … I feel like being more poised and patient with the ball, that’s going to help me tremendously … I’m just worried about knocking down the shots I do take. Obviously, I think I can shoot the mess out of the ball. If I see a shot I like, I’m gonna take it.”

Losing Miller Kopp and Jalen Hood-Schifino from a shooting perspective leaves Indiana with very little experienced shot makers on the perimeter. I’m looking for Gunn to take that step up in year two.

Kaleb Banks; Wing

Like Gunn and Reneau, Banks is another sophomore who is expected to take a sophomore leap. After seeing inconsistent minutes in year one with Indiana basketball, Banks is ready for a strong second season and provides a lot of versatility and athleticism at his position. The hybrid wing found a way into the lineup at times last year with his energy and hustle. While his scoring wasn’t there — and didn’t need to be — finding his niche was critical and it’s something that he should build on in year two.

“I feel like I see myself having a big impact just making impact plays,” Banks said this summer. “Whether grabbing that key rebound, that key defensive stop or just scoring, making that key play for the team … They (the coaches) wanted me to take that big step next year with the flashes that I showed last year they wanted me to improve off of that. I feel like I fit in well with this team this year.”

Banks can provide Woodson with either a larger wing or a smaller and quicker forward. Either way, defensively he has the athletic ability to be effective. Plays won’t be run for Banks offensively, but look for his impact to be felt with keeping plays alive with his hustle and defensively, where I think he’ll blow past expectations. Banks feels like someone who will turn into an ultimate glue guy.

Gabe Cupps; Point Guard

Gabe Cupps comes in as a bit of a wildcard this season. While he will definitely have a role, exactly what that role will be is in question. Indiana has two veteran guards in Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway who have started a combined 80 games in Bloomington, but there isn’t a great deal of depth with true ball handlers for IU. Cupps will begin this year playing spot minutes — likely around media timeouts to give Johnson and/or Galloway a few extra minutes of rest. While Cupps won’t have a major impact scoring the ball, what I’m most looking forward to is his ability to run the team and get the offense into its sets. If he can do his job — which he will — Indiana will be able to utilize him more and more as the season goes on.

“He’s just steady,” Woodson said at Big Ten Media Day. “He knows how to play, man. I have no complaints with him at all. He works, and he’s just smart as hell.”

With Johnson returning off of an injury, Cupps could get some additional minutes early in the season. But regardless, his value is going to go way beyond what you see in the box score.

“The battles have been tremendous because Cupps is a competitor and X is a competitor, which I kind of like,” Woodson added. “They’ve been going at each other, and that’s how it should be.”

SEE ALSO: Indiana basketball coach Mike Woodson wants a balanced offense in year three

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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.