Indiana’s issues this season have a good amount to do with the current, and overall, composition of its backcourt.
The current starters, Gabe Cupps and Trey Galloway, have performed admirably given their situation. But sometimes that’s just not enough. The Hoosiers fell apart down the stretch against Kansas and needed a miracle comeback to beat Morehead State.
Both have some shooting ability if left open but neither can fully create for themselves on the perimeter and only Galloway has proven a semi-reliable scorer. That was why guys like Xavier Johnson and Jakai Newton were on the roster, they could do that.
But both are injured. And C.J. Gunn has yet to become the consistent offensive player a guy with his talent could be.
This definitely provides valid reason to have concerns this year. The overall guard play isn’t up to par and Indiana doesn’t have enough playmaking from its wings to offset that. Long-term though? Not so much, I believe.
Let’s start with this current season though. Indiana was hoping to have Johnson and Newton available and for Gunn to take that next step following a freshman season that saw him on the bench for most of the final games. None of that has happened.
Newton missed almost the entirety of his senior year of high school with an injury before returning for the last few games, with his rehab process stretching into Bloomington. He was able to engage in basketball activities with a brace on in June and working out in late July. Then he had to have a procedure in August.
He’s a special talent with the ball in his hands, with the athleticism and burst to attack the rim and some shooting ability on top of it. His recruiting rankings suffered as a result of injury, so I wouldn’t put much stock in that.
Newton and Johnson are the kind of players Indiana could use in the lineups right about now. The latter is likely returning soon while the former may have to redshirt this year.
As for Indiana’s wings, the Hoosiers have had one of Mackenzie Mgbako or Kaleb Banks out there at the three so far this season.
Mgbako has an incredible offensive bag but his defense needed work, which is where Woodson came in. He already looks like a significantly better defender than he did in November, just a few weeks of time. Like most freshmen, he’s had his share of good and forgettable games.
No matter what, Woodson is quick to pull Mgbako aside during games to coach him individually if the opportunity presents itself and goes to his defense when asked about his performance.
Banks? Indiana hoped for a bit more from him, especially on offense, but he’s shown he’s willing to take open shots from deep and is an overall better player than he was a year ago.
Neither has enough of a handle to be considered a true playmaker out on the perimeter but Mgbako in particular has shown he’s both capable and willing as a passer. He’s had more assists than you’d think and can put some zip on the ball.
That’s where McNeeley comes in next year. He has the size on the wing and handle to be able to make some plays on the perimeter. Then there’s the shooting ability, which makes him a tough cover out there.
Finally, what of that unfilled roster spot?
It’d be more reason to worry long-term if the staff had done nothing to fill that void this past offseason, but that’s not what happened. Indiana was in on multiple portal guards but it’s more complicated than a simple sales pitch in the transfer portal.
A lot of factors go into it. Conference, style of play, promises, NIL concerns, proximity and prior relationships are all under consideration when it comes to portal recruitments. When the staff is competing against prior relationships it’s an uphill battle.
They’d reached out to guys like Dalton Knecht and Jordan Dingle, but other programs won out. It would be a lot worse if they just stood pat on this situation, but that isn’t the case.
Indiana had to replace its entire starting frontcourt and that, understandably, became the priority. Then there was the condensed recruitment for Mackenzie Mgbako that demanded a full-court press to beat out Bill Self and Kansas, an effort that was ultimately successful.
Indiana added all of Kel’el Ware, Anthony Walker and Payton Sparks through the portal. Ware is going to play at the NBA level, Walker was necessary as a winning veteran presence on an overall young roster and the vision for Sparks was an ability to hold up when games got physical.
That was the priority. When Indiana’s offseason began it had just two returning (!!) players in the frontcourt and four in the backcourt with two freshman guards signed and on the way. Of course the frontcourt took priority.
On top of all of that, we’re less than a year removed from Indiana recruiting and developing a conference freshman of the year at lead guard before sending him off to the NBA. It’s not like the staff can’t identify talent.
The Hoosiers are working on adding to the incoming 2024 class alongside McNeeley, being in on Derik Queen and some guards while keeping an eye on backcourt talent in 2025. They know shooting is a priority and they’re acting like it.
So yes, it’s more than fair to be concerned about the current makeup of Indiana’s backcourt. Less so long-term as the staff’s goals are pretty clear once you take a closer look.