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Indiana men’s basketball: Empire Classic Preview

Indiana will join UConn, Texas and Louisville in New York City.

Photo of Rodney Terry via Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today. Photo of Dan Hurley via Gregory Shamus/Getty. Photo of Kenny Payne via Jamie Rhodes/USA Today.

Indiana men’s basketball is set for the Big Apple.

The Hoosiers are set to take on UConn in the opening game of the Empire Classic on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. They’ll face the winner of the Texas/Louisville game the next day. It’s a gathering of some of the biggest brands in the sport in its most famous arena.

New York City is something of a second home for Mike Woodson after Indiana. He was drafted by the Knicks and later worked in coaching roles, both as the head coach and as an assistant, during his time in the NBA.

Woodson’s New York connections have paid dividends, no doubt playing a part in Indiana’s selection for the event. Additionally, it’ll be something of a homecoming for New Jersey native Mackenzie Mgbako.

Mgbako was recruited by Indiana after his mother reached out to Woodson herself based on his reputation in the area. The Hoosiers are likely hoping to form deeper ties to the New York area in the coming years, already targeting a few prospects in the region.

This, and Holiday Hoopsgiving in Atlanta, have deeper meaning than a fun neutral site. Mgbako will be able to play in front of friends and family at Madison Square Garden. Georgia natives Kaleb Banks and Jakai Newton will be able to see family in Atlanta.

It’s part of a recruiting promise used by programs that are far away from a prospect’s home. Commit, and the program will work to schedule a game in your area so family and friends can be in the stands.

Teri Moren has done so with Indiana women’s basketball, playing an away game in Portland, Maine, for star post Mackenzie Holmes this season.

But that’s enough off-court talk. Let’s get to the ball.

Indiana Hoosiers vs. UConn Huskies

  • KenPom spread: Huskies by 11

This one could get... rough.

Dan Hurley has emerged as one of the best coaches in the country after leading UConn all the way to its fifth national championship last March. The Huskies play an efficient style under Hurley and don’t have clear weaknesses on either end of the floor.

In contrast to Indiana, UConn has thoroughly handled the buy games on its early slate behind dominant play from Donavon Clingan in the post and Cam Spencer, formerly of Rutgers.

That sentence would normally include star freshman Stephon Castle, a high school teammate of Indiana freshman Jakai Newton. Unfortunately, he’s out for the foreseeable future with an injury.

The Huskies boast top ten ratings in offensive and defensive efficiency. There’s no weaknesses to be found in the spreadsheet.

Here’s three keys to the matchup:

  • Clingan vs. Ware: Indiana sophomore Kel’el Ware had his best game as a freshman at Oregon in a loss to UConn. Now Ware’s in the cream and crimson and emerging as Indiana’s top threat. He lurks down low as a rim protector, catches lobs, can step out for a midrange jumper or even knock down shots from deep. Clingan is an elite defender who can stop just about all of that. It’s gonna be a battle of the big men.
  • The Boards: Indiana has had a rebounding weakness against its first few opponents, all of which it had a clear size advantage against. UConn is one of the better rebounding teams in the nation and owns the glass. It’s an issue that has come up a few times now, and much of it has been attributed to longer rebounds on account of all the 3-pointers teams take. Which, uh, leads me to...
  • The Arc: The tale of the tape on Indiana is this: wait for an open look from three (it’ll come) and fire away. It’s how Florida Gulf Coast and Army gave Indiana real games and how Wright State clawed back into its matchup. UConn thrives off of shots from the arc, limiting attempts to the perimeter or the paint in a very modern offense. They’ll be able to exploit that weakness.

Texas Longhorns vs. Louisville Cardinals

  • KenPom spread: Longhorns by 14

Rodney Terry was rewarded with the full-time head coaching gig at Texas after leading the Longhorns through the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament.

Texas looked like one of the best teams in the country last season and is off to another strong start this year. A highly efficient defense on one end of the court complimented by a top-40 offense on the other.

The only issues through three games against lesser competition have been a bit high of a turnover percentage (22.3%), issues on the offensive glass and not all that many assists. Not necessarily necessary against those opponents but still.

The Longhorns have yet to see a go-to guy emerge with multiple stars, including Max Abmas, getting the ball enough to do some work.

Meanwhile, Louisville looks... rough in year two of the Kenny Payne era. The Cardinals scored a narrow home win over UMBC before falling to Chattanooga. They’ve dropped about 70 spots in KenPom through three games.

One bright spot? They’re pretty good on the offensive glass! The offense and defense have some glaring issues but they can get some boards. The Cards aren’t making or taking many shots from deep so far either.

Tre White is The Guy in the River City so far, with Illinois transfer Skyy Clark and Mike James trailing behind him. Freshman big man Dennis Evans is “nearly invisible” on the offensive end of the court.

Texas is widely favored in this one, making it likely that the Hoosiers will face off with Payne’s Cards should they lose to UConn. If so, it’d be a battle of former Knicks assistants in Madison Square Garden.