No Ware, no problem: Indiana’s frontcourt gets to the foul line and dominates Kennesaw State

  • 12/30/2023 6:37 am in

The Indiana frontcourt has been its strength in the first half of the 2023-24 season. But the Hoosiers, without 7-footer Kel’el Ware (COVID-19), needed help from its supporting cast in Friday night’s 100-87 win over Kennesaw State.

Mike Woodson got just that as six Hoosiers scored in double-figures on Friday night, but no one was as impactful as Malik Reneau. The sophomore forward tallied a career-high 34 points, snatched 11 rebounds and added four assists. It Reneau’s first double-double in the cream and crimson.

The Miami, Florida native continues to impress as a more vocal and complete player than he was a year ago. He’s cut down on tick-tack fouls that used to keep him off the floor and has some of the best footwork in the Big Ten, as any time he gets the ball inside the restricted area, it will be a bucket. Reneau said he credits former Hoosiers Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson for much of his growth.

“He’s getting better… Malik, based on where he started with us last season and where he is today, he’s a lot better,” Woodson said postgame. “I think there’s a lot of room still to grow as a player. He’s just got to keep pushing and we’ve got to keep pushing him to get better.”

Reneau was also 1-of-3 from deep against Kennesaw State. It doesn’t eclipse his career night from beyond the arc on his last outing against North Alabama, but he’s threatening on the perimeter, which opens the floor for Indiana. The big man has made seven of his previous 11 3-point attempts dating back to the Kansas game.

Payton Sparks was the name called in Ware’s place for IU’s starting lineup, and while Ware’s impact could never be entirely replaced, Sparks did many little things to help the Hoosiers put the Owls away. The Ball State transfer was perfect from the field, scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 14 minutes. In his absence, Indiana missed Ware’s size and rim protection, but the 6-foot-10 Sparks plugged the hole with four rejections. Sparks has played sparingly this season, not seeing minutes against teams like Kansas, but the junior has started 62 games in his career. Sparks using his strength and size is all Indiana needed him to do — which he did and then some.

“This is his first big-time start,” Woodson said. “And as a coach, I’m anxious to see if he’s ready to play because he hadn’t played big minutes. And he only played 14 minutes tonight, but I thought they were a positive 14 minutes to help us win a basketball game.

“That tells me a lot about him in terms of being ready to play because you just never know. We didn’t know that Ware wasn’t going to play until this morning. And he was ready and he stepped in and gave us a major lift.”

Miami (FL) transfer Anthony Walker had ten or more points off the bench for the third consecutive game, playing 29 minutes. Walker brings length, experience and athleticism to Indiana’s frontcourt. Against the Owls, he didn’t hit a 3-pointer but showed off some soft touch with a pair of midrange jumpers and was aggressive in getting to the hole. His aggressiveness put him on the foul stripe for six attempts.

With Indiana’s frontcourt’s dominance this season, the Hoosiers’ big men get to the foul line at a top-15 rate in the country, according to KenPom. It’s a good way for IU to make up for a significant 3-point discrepancy, and while Indiana did give up 17 3-pointers to the Owls, it attempted 25 more foul shots.

It’s an interesting strength in modern-day basketball, but Indiana certainly knows how to capitalize on it.

“We’re trying to draw fouls, try to get to the free-throw line and convert at the free-throw line,” Reneau said. “Anytime we see a team that’s in the bonus, we’re going at it, we’re attacking and we’re trying to draw fouls or scoring.”

Sophomore Kaleb Banks scored a season-high 12 points, five coming from the line.

Indiana’s revolving door of quality frontcourt players challenges opposing teams. Any player could find themselves in foul trouble against the Hoosiers, and Indiana focuses on attacking those that are. More importantly, IU’s bigs all have different skill sets. Sparks is a bruiser. Ware protects the rim, can be a lob threat and stretches the floor. Reneau is a nice pairing with his left hand and footwork on the block. Walker is the Swiss army knife, using his wiry frame defensively and driving to the basket. That’s a lot to gameplan for as an opposing coach.

Heading into the new year, Indiana will rely on its big men. But in the Big Ten, it can’t just be Reneau and Ware carrying the weight of the season on their shoulders.

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