Patience, effort and growth pay off for Mackenzie Mgbako against Harvard

  • 11/27/2023 7:51 am in

INDIANAPOLIS — With 13:10 to go, Indiana had begun to stretch its lead. Malik Reneau was at the line trying to complete a 3-point play. Freshman Mackenzie Mgbako was the only Hoosier on the block and after a poor block-out attempt by Harvard’s Luca Ace-Nasteski, the former five-star clawed into the center of the paint and jumped over two players for the rebound. He then finished through contact for the and-one. He laid on the ground underneath the basket and roared with the Hoosiers crowd.

Mgbako completed the 3-point play at the stripe, making it 63-51 Indiana. And, in a culmination of his talent, the very next defensive possession he deflected a pass, stalling Harvard’s offense.

Plays like this had been missing from the Gladstone, New Jersey native early in the season. Through the first five games of the season, the 6-foot-8 forward had not played more than 23 minutes in a game and only scored more than 10 points once. On Sunday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Mgbako scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds in Indiana’s 89-76 win against Harvard.

Based on his previous performances, the freshman’s career day was a big step forward. Mgbako had been a target for criticism through five games after continuously showing a lack of urgency on the defensive end, coupled with poor shooting splits.

After the Hoosier’s loss to UConn in New York, Mike Woodson sounded off on Mgbako’s lofty preseason expectations.

“All of you guys expect this young kid to be great right now because he’s got this five-star tag on him. I think that’s bullshit,” Woodson said last week. “He’ll be fine.”

Gone are the days of patience in college basketball. The “one-and-done” cultural shift of the early 2010s made fans think all five stars were future lottery picks and could lead a team to the Final Four. That was the case for a couple of recruiting classes, but a decade later those expectations are still there, and the tolerance for players to grow through mistakes and improve throughout the season and their college careers is not. Woodson echoed this again postgame.

“You guys expect so much from these kids,” Woodson said postgame. “It’s a learning process when you come out of high school and go to college and you play college basketball. He’s got a ways to go but tonight was progress and he’s just got to continue to work and if you do that I think good things will continue to happen.”

It took a few weeks, but it looks like Mgbako will be a pivotal part of Indiana’s season.

Still, it wasn’t a perfect performance from Mgbako. A few defensive miscues on the perimeter still happened. At times he found himself losing his man or confused on the switch. He also shot 1-for-5 from beyond the arc, an area where he needs to be consistent.

“He’s a freshman. And he’s been working,” Woodson said sternly postgame. “Hopefully this will be a nice carry-over to the next game.

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

Mgbako finished 7-for-13 from the field and scored six of IU’s first 12 points, and his quick start allowed him to keep finding his shots on offense. At times, we saw Mgbako directing traffic and using his time to back down his defender. Other times, he was running off screens for looks from the perimeter. But most importantly, and a testament to his effort, the freshman was scrappy on the boards for a season-high eight rebounds.

Rebounding the basketball, which can be considered an effort statistic, had been an area of concern for the Hoosiers through their first few games. Woodson even pointed out the need for his guards and perimeter players to crash the glass. Mgbako did just that on Sunday. On nearly every shot attempt, he moved to the block to help clean the glass.

It’s been an uphill battle for the McDonald’s All-American since he arrived in Bloomington. But it’s almost as if the wheels on his train are starting to churn and he’s headed for the top of the mountain. While talent is undeniable, effort and defensive intensity are things Mgbako will have to grow into this season and it’s slowly starting to come together.

Filed to: