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What We’ve Learned: Indiana basketball opens Big Ten play with two tough wins



Indiana Basketball
Taking a look at some of the key points we've learned after two Big Ten games for the Indiana basketball program. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Indiana basketball improved to 7-1 on the season and 2-0 in Big Ten play with its 78-75 win over Michigan on Tuesday night. It is the first time since the 2018-19 season that Indiana started the season off with a 2-0 conference record.

The Hoosiers have also won four in a row following its lone loss to UConn at Madison Square Garden last month.

Now, Indiana takes a break from Big Ten play with notable non-conference matchups with Auburn and Kansas, and three other out of conference games, before getting back to league play.

So, what have we learned from Indiana basketball through its first two Big Ten games? Let’s dive in.

‘If you don’t come and meet the challenge, you’ll be exposed’: That’s what Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said after IU’s win over Maryland. And, it carried over this week. Indiana was not a tough team earlier in the season. While it made some key plays against lower-level competition to win games, it was in for a wake up call when the competition level stepped up against UConn and then Louisville. Toughness was a question mark heading into these last two Big Ten matchups — but Indiana answered the call and more. Maryland and Michigan were two physical teams that like to throw the first punch. But, it was Indiana that did. At the under-eight break in the first half of both matchups, Indiana totaled a +16 margin — seven against Michigan and nine against Maryland. It clearly set the tone that IU was here to throw the punch first and bring the aggressiveness and physicality before its opponents.

“We’re a competitive team man. We are playing hard,” Woodson said on Tuesday.. “I think after that UConn game man, that taught us that we have to play harder. They smacked us in the face and we paid for it. Since then, we’ve played a lot harder.

“I thought we fought (tonight). My theme coming into tonight’s game was, you gotta come and set the tone like you did in the Maryland game and give yourself a chance to win.”

Mackenzie Mgbako trending up: There’s no question that Mgbako was going to get better, but the quick turn he’s made in his production has been much needed. Following a tough start to his career, Mgbako has been everything that was expected when he announced his commitment to IU this past spring. In his first five games this season he averaged just 5.0 points on 32 percent from the field. In the past three games, he’s averaging 14.0 points on 53.6 percent from the field. In his two Big Ten games, he’s scored 13 and 11 points on 8-of-17 from the field. In Tuesday’s win, he iced the game with two critical free throws with 5.7 seconds left — a play that was drawn up by the Indiana basketball staff specifically to get the ball in Mgbako’s hands. Not only is his shot back in form, his overall confidence, aggressiveness and all-around game is trending up.

Points in the paint: Indiana has been phenomenal inside the arc and specifically inside the paint. Whether it’s Indiana’s bigs or the wings slashing to the rim, Indiana basketball has dominated the paint through two Big Ten games. It currently has a 92-54 advantage inside the paint. That can also be a result of 24 offensive rebounds in the two games combined. Over the first two games, Indiana has scored 58 points off of layups, outscoring opponents by 20 in that category.

‘If you steal two, three games on the road, you’ll be sitting in a good spot in the Big Ten’: In the first two seasons under Mike Woodson, Indiana didn’t win its first road game in the Big Ten until the fourth game away from home. In fact, Indiana is 7-13 in road matchups under Woodson in two seasons. To get a road win in its first chance on Tuesday at Michigan is notable. Also because it was down a starting point guard in Xavier Johnson. The next two games on the road for Indiana are Nebraska and Rutgers — both ‘winnable’ games. The next two after? Wisconsin and Illinois. If Indiana can split those four matchups, it’ll go a long way in helping them throughout the rest of the Big Ten season. But, so far so good and Tuesday showed it will be ready for the road challenge.

‘Buddy Ball’ going to be an issue for most teams this year: We’ve seen enough to see the consistent high-level play from Indiana’s bigs. Kel’el Ware and Malik Reneau have been tremendous and in both Big Ten games, they did not disappoint. Against Maryland, Ware had 18 points and 12 rebounds. He was 8-of-12 from the field. Reneau had 11 points, four rebounds and five assists. They both set the tone early, scoring 19 first half points on 8-of-9 from the field. Against Michigan, both players stepped up yet again. Ware had 13 points and eight rebounds while Reneau had a team-high 15 points, six rebounds and two blocks. But, it was the second half when Indiana needed them most, where they shined. Reneau had 11 of his points after halftime, with just one foul, in 17 minutes. It was critical at keeping Indiana basketball within striking distance for the majority of the second half. Then, it was Ware who finished things off. Indiana went to Ware with 53 seconds left in a tie game and he answered with a sky hook, giving IU a two-point lead.

“He made a hell of a move to drop that bucket in. I thought that was the difference in us securing the win, because we needed a big bucket at that particular time,” Woodson said of Ware’s go-ahead bucket. “He’s made some big shots early in the season, but that’s just one of the few that he’s made. I just gotta think when you make shots like that, he’s got to understand that we believe in him and there’s a reason we’re going to him, and you got to come through. I thought he answered the bell tonight.”

“That’s just Coach Woodson trusting me,” Reneau said. “He’s seen me do it multiple times. The trust in me. I told coach, I said, ‘If I get on the blocks and I get enough time to go, I’m scoring,’ and he trusted in me.”

Backcourt play needs to improve: There’s no way to cut it; the backcourt needs to get better if Indiana is going to reach its potential this year. It’s great getting two wins to start Big Ten play without your point guard, but it hasn’t been all great things from this unit even with Xavier Johnson on the floor. I’m looking at Trey Galloway. After a terrific season a year ago, he’s really struggling to find any sort of groove to start this year and looked very uncomfortable without Johnson on the floor for nearly 30 of the 40 minutes of the first two Big Ten games. Against Michigan, he was 3-of-12 from the floor, 0-of-3 from three and just 3-of-6 from the line. He had 0 rebounds and just two assists. He is now 3-of-22 on 3s this year after shooting 46.2 percent a season ago. That wasn’t going to replicate itself but still, he has missed many open looks. Galloway had a solid all-around game on Friday against Maryland, but the inconsistent play has gone on the entire season for Galloway and Indiana needs more from him — at least a consistent performance each night it can count on.

Gabe Cupps has been fine in relief of Johnson but he’s not someone who was expected to play 25-30 minutes a game in Big Ten play. He’s done his job, however, and that’s the key. He has two assists to three turnovers though so he does need to do a better job handling some of the pressure he’ll be facing moving forward.

Off of the bench on Tuesday was a huge moment for sophomore CJ Gunn. He had eight points and hit two 3s. He had been 2-of-28 from three in his previous 27 games so seeing a few shots go through the net was and could be a critical moment in his development this year. What’s even better, however, was his defensive ability. He had four steals and started a few fast breaks with his ability to get in passing lanes. It’s about consistency with him and if he can become that consistent punch off of the bench and provide a spark like Tuesday, that will be a fantastic storyline for this Indiana basketball team moving into the heart of Big Ten play.

“Even if I would have missed it, I still act like nothing happened. All the work I’ve been putting in, getting shots up with Jordy [Jordan Hulls] and Coach [Calbert] Cheaney,” Gunn said about making the first three he took. “I was never nervous to take the shot and I’m glad it fell cause it definitely boosted my confidence for the rest of the game.”

SEE ALSO: Gritty and tough. Slowly, the identity of this Indiana basketball team is forming following another physical Big Ten 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.