Indiana’s loss to UConn a disappointing wake-up call

  • 11/19/2023 5:13 pm in

The crowd at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon was overwhelmingly cream and crimson, but there’s only so much a fanbase can do to influence the outcome of a game. If the team on the court doesn’t have the toughness to win, they won’t, no matter how many fans travel to support them.

The first game of the Empire Classic featured an Indiana team that produced that exact question. How much does this team want to win? And do they have all of the proper pieces to win consistently at a high level?

The Hoosiers’ 77-57 loss to UConn was a disappointing one, as much as it may have been expected. The defending national champions entered with a major advantage, and they played like it. The Huskies had more height, more shooters, more rebounders and, at root of it all, more tenacity.

“We’re not tough enough, not yet,” Woodson said. “We put so much pressure on our defense to get stops, and then come down and have terrible offensive execution. And that’s on me. I take pride in trying to keep everything balanced, so I’ve got to do a better job of getting them in better positions to score the ball.”

The tone of the game was set early in the first half, as Xavier Johnson picked up two fouls within the first three minutes. Clearly, with the sixth-year guard struggling like that so early, another guard was going to have to step up. The problem is, no one did.

CJ Gunn played for 20 minutes and scored seven points but went 0-for-3 from deep and had three fouls. Gabe Cupps had one rebound and two assists in 19 minutes of play. Trey Galloway finished with 10 points but only one rebound.

“We’ve got to find ways to gain rebounds, it’s got to be all of us,” Galloway said. “For me, one rebound is not good enough.”

As a team, Indiana was out-rebounded 44-to-22. UConn snagged 15 offensive rebounds to Indiana’s four, and the Huskies were able to score 16 second-chance points because of their aggressiveness on the boards. Indiana scored zero second-chance points.

“That’s the difference,” Woodson said of the rebounding discrepancy. “Our guards are not rebounding, trying to leave it up to (Kel’el) Ware and Malik (Reneau) to get all the rebounds.”

The two bright spots for the Hoosiers were Reneau and Ware, but even they couldn’t play consistently through the full 40 minutes. Ware, who finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, kept Indiana competitive in the first half. He was able to fight in the paint and match up with UConn’s 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan and the other lanky Huskies who played like they were also 7-feet tall. But he effectively disappeared down the stretch in the second half, only scoring four points — all of which came off of free throws — and grabbing four rebounds.

“I was a little disappointed,” Woodson said. “It’s like he didn’t want any part of it tonight, and I told him that. He’s 7-feet tall, he’s got to get in there and mix it up. And he kind of floated around the perimeter shooting threes. That’s good when you’re up 20, but when you’re down you’ve got to get in there and mix it up.”

Reneau led the team in scoring with 18 points and showed off his physicality by muscling in for contested layups, but fouled out of the game with about seven minutes to go in the second half. He only played nine minutes in the second half and Indiana suffered because of it.

“He played great against a great team,” Woodson said. “But again, keeping him out of foul trouble. That hurts, when you don’t have him on the floor.”

One of the reasons Indiana suffered the most, however, was arguably the performance — or lack thereof — from Mackenzie Mgbako.

The 2023 McDonald’s All-American and consensus five-star recruit was expected to contribute in major ways from the moment he stepped onto the floor, but he has largely underperformed. Despite playing for 23 minutes on Sunday, Mgbako finished with only two points, one rebound and one assist. His effort was lacking offensively, but it was even more noticeable on defense.

At 6-foot-8 and 217 pounds, Mgbako should be at least a decent threat to opponents coming down the floor. But, more often than not, he looked out of place and was caught unaware by UConn’s offensive movement.

Sunday’s game was a clear display of everything Indiana needs to work on in order to be able to compete, and a wake-up call for everyone. Strategies on the court, both offensively and defensively, have to change and/or improve for the Hoosiers to reach the level they believe they can play at. But the first thing that needs to change is their mentality.

“It was glaring tonight that we just got out-toughed,” Woodson said. “And I don’t like that. I’ve got to figure it out.”

(Photo credit: IU Athletics)

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