That was probably a more eventful game than one would have hoped for as the non-conference finale. The refs showed up and did their thing, Indiana was short handed, and Kennesaw State got hot from deep. A recipe for disaster.
Though the Hoosiers hope to have Xavier Johnson back from his foot injury soon, they were without Kel’el Ware tonight, who was out with a reported illness. Time will tell when he’s able to return, but seeing him scratched late gave this trap game the Doom vibe even before tip.
Thankfully, Indiana got off to a good start with Mackenzie Mgbako hitting consecutive 3-pointers on the first two possessions of the game. He finished the night with 14 points on 4-5 3-point shooting in just 14 minutes.
Things got out of hand about midway through the second half with Kennesaw State taking a four point lead after erasing Indiana’s 13-point first half lead. Catastrophe threatened once again.
As has been the case so far this year, Indiana managed to avoid the disaster today and finished its non-conference slate relatively healthy and at 10-3. Things could be worse.
Here’s Three Things we learned:
Without his frontcourt buddy Kel’el Ware, Malik Reneau had the night of his career with 34 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. All of this while committing just one foul.
We’ve written about his development before, but we are at the point where I’m sure the Indiana coaching staff is pointing out his year-to-year improvement to recruits, as they have with Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Reneau went from averaging 6.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, and just 14.9 minutes for Indiana behind Indiana’s elder front court. He struggled with turning the ball over, often getting lost and traveling on offense while fouling too much to be counted on defensively.
This year, he looks like a completely different player. He’s the focal point of Indiana’s offense and has cut down on his fouling. After averaging 2.5 fouls in under 15 minutes per game last year, he’s committing just 2.7 fouls per game in nearly 28 minutes per game.
Props to the staff for unlocking the potential in what could be one of the most dominant bigs in the conference for years to come.
Indiana had six players reach double digits in scoring tonight, filling in when they were missing their leading scorer in Ware. Reneau led the way with 34, but the Hoosiers also got 14 from Mgbako, 14 from Trey Galloway, 12 from Kaleb Banks, 10 from Anthony Walker, and 10 from Payton Sparks.
They didn’t attempt as many 3-pointers as last game, but still had makes from four different players and attempts from five. Banks, Galloway, and Reneau all commanded attention on the perimeter after Mgbako left the game red hot from deep.
Perhaps most impressively, this team was able to overcome a zone defense thrown against some pretty uncommon (and less than ideal) Indiana lineups. In past years, even Indiana’s starters would have been broken by a zone.
Walker hit some nice midrange jumpers that normally would have gone to the much taller Ware while Banks drove well from the wing in Mgbako’s absence. Anthony Leal brought some stabilizing defense that allowed Indiana to regain control and win by 13.
This was a team win and one that all nine players who saw time today should be proud of.
It may be odd to describe a team that blew a 13-point first half lead resilient, but there were a lot of things going against them. As mentioned earlier, Indiana was without its leading scorer and starting point guard in Ware and Johnson.
Then Mgbako was taken out of the game, presumably as a precautionary measure. He may have just been in the doghouse defensively, but the broadcast crew noted that he appeared to have some heat on his leg on the sideline in the second half.
And then there was the officiating. During one crucial stretch, Banks got hit with an offensive foul call that was, if I’m being generous, awful. It was followed by Indiana’s bench drawing a technical that gave Kennesaw State the free throws it needed to tie the game.
To come back from that sequence and win handily shows a mental toughness that will serve Indiana well throughout Big Ten play. There will be more bad calls. There will be more injuries. But this team can handle that.
Big picture, it’s also important that Indiana made it to Big Ten play without any truly damaging losses. There were a lot of scares, but this team always found a way to avoid the real disasters and now has a chance to build its tournament resume in the conference.
Consistency remains elusive for this bunch, but resiliency is a good trait to have when all else fails.