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Indiana men’s basketball beats Michigan 78-75: Three things we learned

Sweeping the early Big Ten slate

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana moves to 2-0 in the Big Ten and 4-0 in its last four matchups with Michigan after eking out a tough victory on the road in Ann Arbor tonight. The Hoosiers were once again without Xavier Johnson, but got enough from everyone else to steal the win.

The on court product very obviously remains a work in progress. Indiana is going to need to shoot better than 3/9 from 3-point range to beat better teams and Mike Woodson acknowledged as much after the game.

For now though, Indiana sits at 7-1 with two conference wins in December, and they’ve done it all without their starting point guard. Purdue and Michigan State, two of the Big Ten’s preseason darlings, each lost games this week.

To be able to go on the road in the Big Ten and win without bringing your best is no easy feat. It’s certainly not something Indiana has been able to get away with in recent years, even with teams that were more highly regarded coming into the year.

Until Indiana starts losing or stops improving, I’m not going to worry about all the parts of their game that are less than perfect. It’s a long season and 7-1 is as good of a start as anyone could have hoped for.

Here’s Three Things we learned:

The Front Court (Again)

It’s not really a secret that they key to defending Indiana for the past however many seasons has been to pack the paint and make it difficult to get the easy buckets. Trayce Jackson-Davis finally evolved to be unguardable, but conference opponents have found success in recent years when they’ve dared Indiana to shoot.

This year’s front court looks like a different beast entirely. Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware appear to be more of a true dual threat than TJD and Race Thompson ever were, punishing teams for doubling one instead of the other or failing to box out on the glass.

Reneau and Ware had 15 and 13 points respectively tonight while combining to go 4-6 from the free throw line in a game where every point mattered. The pair were entrusted with initiating the offense from the wing or perimeter and they bailed Indiana out of a few droughts with passes or easy buckets.

Then there’s Mackenzie Mgbako. He’s quietly hit double digits in scoring in his last three games - something Miller Kopp only did once in two years with Indiana - while being one of the only reliable 3-point shooters on the team.

Mike Woodson also called upon Mgbako once Michigan went into fouling mode in the last minute, demonstrating the amount of trust he has in the freshman. As the season goes on, his scoring and length will give Indiana an edge over just about any front court.

Xavier Johnson

There is no scenario in which Indiana reaches their high ceiling this year without Xavier Johnson. With no Jakai Newton, the Hoosiers are down to Trey Galloway, Gabe Cupps, and C.J. Gunn in the backcourt, plus some spot minutes from Anthony Leal.

Leal did not play tonight, so it all fell on Galloway, Gunn, and Cupps to replace everything that Johnson brings to the floor. Each played well enough, but it was hard not to think about how much easier things would have been with Johnson’s lateral quickness, experience, and defensive edge.

Probably the most positive development from the last two games without him has been C.J. Gunn’s emergence as a shooter and defender. He hit two 3-pointers for Indiana tonight, hopefully opening the floodgates for the shooting the Hoosiers need.

It’s also been nice to watch Cupps develop in the Big Ten, but he has a bit to go physically to be what Indiana needs from a starting point guard this season. The sooner Johnson comes back, the better.


However ugly it’s looked, Indiana keeps winning. It was easier to write this off when the opponents were in the 100+ range on Kenpom, but Indiana now has consecutive wins in the Big Ten and a shot at another good resume win coming this Saturday against Auburn.

This is even more significant in the context of the overall parity in college basketball this year. Auburn just dropped a road game to Appalachian State this past Sunday, while Indiana and Ohio State are basically the only Big Ten teams without a bad loss.

Since the Big Ten added these early December conference games, this is only the second time that Indiana has gone 2-0 in the month. And last year they had Xavier Johnson for both games.

Whatever you do or don’t like about this team or how they play should be secondary to the fact that they are finding ways to win when other teams with fewer excuses are not. If they can start playing to their potential, we will probably be treated to the blowout victories we’ve been craving.