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Indiana men’s basketball: Empire Classic debrief

Everything went about as expected.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic Third Place-Indiana at Louisville Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana men’s basketball is heading home from New York City after a 1-1 run and third place finish in the Empire Classic.

Nobody, including Indiana fans, expected them to leave with the trophy. To be quite honest everything went about as expected with the sole aberration being Louisville looking like a new team against Texas and Indiana.

Let’s talk about a few things here.


The loss everyone saw coming

  • Nobody thought Indiana would emerge victorious over UConn. They’re the defending national champs and Dan Hurley is on a roll. Indiana looks like a mix of experience and youth still figuring everything out. It was close but ended up with the margin we all saw coming.
  • Even in the preseason this was marked up as a loss barring some emergence that nobody saw coming. Indiana’s flaws were still present and UConn knew exactly what it was doing, though admitted to adjusting defensively to counter Indiana’s paint-centric attack.
  • Not a ton of takeaways there we didn’t already see. Indiana needs to shoot more and better from deep, squeeze the boards and figure out the defense

A weird one against Louisville

  • Louisville gave Texas A Real Game that the Longhorns had to win on a midrange buzzer beater. For the first time it looked like a Kenny Payne team knew what it wanted to do and the Cards have enough talent this year to push some teams.
  • Indiana switched to a zone down by a few scores late against Louisville. The Cards had absolutely no answers on either end and a 13-2 run sealed a win. Woodson isn’t known for running zones and Payne, who worked with him in New York, said as much after.
  • The Hoosiers’ bench was the surprise story. Anthony Walker scored 11! Payton Sparks was cooking! That came pretty much out of nowhere but hey if you’re Indiana you take that confidence boost and run with it.

Broad Takeaways

Indiana didn’t provide a ton of, if any, answers to the questions we had going into the event. The upcoming schedule doesn’t afford them much in terms of breathing room either. A hopeful tune-up against Harvard in Indianapolis before facing Auburn in Atlanta and Kansas at home.

Daunting!

Mike Woodson didn’t come to Indiana to schedule a bunch of teams they’ll beat by 20 in the noncon (which, uh, still hasn’t happened yet). He prefers the big stage with the big brands. For the fans’ sake, some of those have to become wins eventually.

Indiana needs more from its backcourt

The only reliable, consistent scorer among Indiana’s guards right now is Xavier Johnson. Which, you’d really rather have him run the show than have to take matters into his own hands.

Trey Galloway has had his moments, as he did last year, but is still prone to nights of low point totals and spotty play. C.J. Gunn, who can play the two and the three, has yet to find a scoring rhythm but plays with consistent effort on defense.

That defense is what it takes to earn minutes from Mike Woodson, but the shot has gotta start falling at some point.

It’d really, really help if Indiana had its full backcourt available too. Freshman Jakai Newton has been sidelined for months after undergoing a procedure ahead of this season. No telling how long he’ll be out but Indiana will not risk rushing him back into action.

Shooting from the arc

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Indiana could really use some perimeter shooting. This goes hand in hand with the previous point as you’d hope to get that from guards, but the best shooter is Johnson and he’s a bit busy trying to create for others.

The hopeful go-to guy would be Mackenzie Mgbako, but he’s still getting a better feel for the game as a freshman and hasn’t quite had the scoring output many were hoping for. Yet.

Kel’el Ware can shoot when he’s open but he’s better as a scoring option around the rim. Galloway has had a few off nights at the beginning of the season and, as previously explained, Gunn has yet to get going as a sophomore.

You need reliable 3-point shooting to compete night in and night out in 2023 and Indiana just doesn’t have that right now. Guys may emerge as the season goes on but they’re left looking for more right now.

The Ceiling

Indiana has flashed what it could be at points this season, particularly against Wright State. The Hoosiers were defending with fire, hauling in boards and hustling down the floor. It was a sight until the energy disappeared.

We didn’t see too much of that in New York. The team really relied on Malik Reneau to score a la Trayce Jackson-Davis. Reneau has it in him to become more of a go-to guy like that, but needs more time to develop as a defender, passer and all-around player.

The Hoosiers have yet to show a true identity outside of that largely because of defensive lapses. Stops lead to rebounds. Rebounds lead to points. Indiana hasn’t gotten enough of the first two to score.

This team was always gonna take a while to figure itself out, but the clock is ticking.