“Sometimes you gotta fail to be successful”: Mackenzie Mgbako shows more growth against Illinois

  • 01/27/2024 8:29 pm in

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Indiana freshman Mackenzie Mgbako walked off the floor underneath the Illinois basket, talking to himself and with his hands on his head after exiting the handshake line.

It was a frustrating 70-62 road loss for the Hoosiers, who faced a tall task against the No. 10 Fighting Illini. But Mgbako, while visibly frustrated, played one of his better games in the cream and crimson.

Mgbako finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double, in a team-high 37 minutes. Four of his rebounds were offensive, resulting in six second-chance points. The New Jersey native’s effort was outstanding on the defensive end, an area he struggled in earlier in the season. Mgbako was in Illinois’ backcourt deflecting passes and did an excellent job using his length to defend the dribble-drive and the basket.

The 6-foot-8 forward also made a game-tying jumper — which accounted for two of Indiana’s four points that did not come from the foul line or the paint — giving Indiana a chance with 1:30 left.

“You think back to when he started, he struggled,” Mike Woodson said postgame. “Mack has come a long way in terms of where he started and where he is at today. He’s trying to do the right things on the floor. He’s still learning. He’s in that learning stage. From a defensive standpoint, he still has a ways to go.

“Sometimes you gotta fail to be successful. I like his work ethic. When he’s in practice, he gives you what he’s got. But tonight, you saw a guy who was relentless on the glass. He rebounded for us when we needed it and he made tough shots inside. I’m happy with Mack, man, I think he’s gonna continue to get better.”

Mgbako’s failures were well documented in the early stages of winter. He consistently lost his man on the perimeter and sometimes lacked engagement when he wasn’t getting consistent playing time or touches. Over two and a half months, the former five-star prospect has gone from being unplayable in late-game stretches to a must-have on the floor.

His preparation deserves credit. Mgbako took pride postgame when discussing his rebounding efforts and knowing the scouting report. Illinois is ranked 17th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com.

“I just knew that they were a team that was heavy on the offensive boards,” Mgbako said. “So I knew that they were gonna crash and just box out.”

The Illini present many challenges on the perimeter because of their small-ball lineup. For the most part, Indiana and Mgbako, in particular, did an excellent job of making Terrance Shannon Jr. uncomfortable. Shannon shot 20 percent, and eight of his 12 points came from the free-throw line. As a team, Indiana held Illinois to 37.1 percent shooting.

“I thought we played a great defensive game,” Woodson said. “Not all Big Ten teams are small… Illinois is pretty much the only team that plays like that. So they force your hand.”

Indiana did not make a 3-pointer as they shot 0-for-9 from distance. The Hoosiers also struggled from the charity stripe, connecting on 12 out of their 22 attempts.

“I’m about winning, man. I wanna win at all costs. But again, when you go through a Purdue game like we played and Wisconsin, where we played in spurts — I thought we were solid all the way through,” Woodson said. “We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch.”

This year’s Indiana team has gone through a lot of adversity over the past two weeks. The Hoosiers have lost three straight and five of their last seven. While the three consecutive losses have all come to the top three teams in the conference, it took two games before Indiana even looked competitive against the highest tier of the Big Ten. Being competitive in one game is better than none, and Mgbako is a large part of that.

He’s scored in double-figures in 13 of his last 15 games after scoring four or fewer points in four of his first five games.

An aggressive and energized Mgbako is a competitive Indiana. Building on top of the ashes of what the season has been for Indiana will be challenging and it won’t happen in one game or even one week. The Hoosiers will have to find a speck of momentum and ride it out — they may have found a spark in their 6-foot-8 freshman from Gladstone, New Jersey.

(Photo credit: IU Athletics)

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