BLOOMINGTON – Indiana passed the quarter pole of its season with a win Tuesday night at Michigan, using the same formula it has since that season began.
The Hoosiers attempted just nine 3-pointers — not made; attempted — and still managed to roll up 78 points on Michigan in a narrow win at the Crisler Center. Mike Woodson’s team is now fifth nationally in percentage of points scored off 2s, and 362nd in the country in the same number off 3s.
There are 362 teams playing Division I basketball.
Woodson has bristled ever so slightly this season, when asked about the glaring lack of 3-point impact in his offense. He’s promised the Hoosiers work regularly on it, suggested it’s his job to make it better and disputed the idea IU cannot make the NCAA tournament without making more 3s.
Nevertheless, it appears the Hoosiers are going to test the theory. And in fairness, for now at least, they’d be within their right to point out they’re 7-1, 2-0 in conference play, that one loss a perfectly acceptable (if lopsided) defeat to UConn in New York.
Set aside for a moment any understandable discomfort with the long-term prognosis for an offense so allergic to 3s. Why is this working for Indiana?
In simplest terms, the Hoosiers are elite around the rim right now, in just about every baseline meaningful way.
They’re No. 22 nationally in 2-point shooting, top-50 in block rate both ways and 11th in the country in free-throw rate. In two Big Ten games — an admittedly small sample size but still 10% of their overall conference schedule — they’re fifth shooting 2s and first in percentage of points scored inside the arc.
Indiana’s starting frontcourt of Kel’el Ware, Mackenzie Mgbako and Malik Reneau is shooting a combined 64.4% on 2s, while secondary contributors like Trey Galloway (58.1% on 2s) or bench players like Anthony Walker (63% on 2s) are also chipping in.
Ware’s rebounding numbers are outstanding. Reneau currently boasts the highest assist rate on the team. And the players getting to the free-throw line the most are making the most of their trips. Of the five Hoosiers with at least 18 free-throw attempts across these first eight games, four are shooting at least 68%, and three — Reneau, Walker and Xavier Johnson — are at 73.5% or better.
That number also leaves out Mgbako, who’s a perfect 17-of-17 from the stripe so far this season.
Whether this can be a winning formula against the sorts of teams IU needs to beat to get into the NCAA tournament is going to get a serious stress test in the next 10 days.
Auburn in Atlanta and Kansas at home do not look like the hopeless causes they did after an uninspiring November kickoff. They’re also good placeholders for opponents like Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State, which Indiana will need to run with in conference play to round out its tournament resume.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s worked so far. Now, we find out if it can keep delivering results when the competition kicks up a level.
What did Oregon do with Kel’el Ware?
It is becoming more and more difficult to understand why Oregon could not tap into Ware’s potential in any meaningful way last season, to Indiana’s benefit.
Ware’s freshman season at Oregon certainly didn’t go as planned. He started four games across the end of November and beginning of December, and actually scored the ball well. But then he left the Ducks’ first five for good, his court time falling noticeably as Oregon muddled through a 21-win season that ended in the NIT.
Ducks coach Dana Altman reserved some pointed comments for Ware through the season. Suggesting his effort and work ethic were primary issues, Altman in late January said, “I was disappointed in his effort. I let him know that. He’s going to have to make some adjustments or I’ve got to make some decisions.”
Ware transferred to Indiana, where his new coach was not shy about referencing those comments in the preseason. But IU’s third-year coach will have none of the complaints his predecessor did.
Through eight games at Indiana, Ware has more than doubled his per-game rebounding average, more than tripled his assist average and nearly tripled is scoring average. He’s currently logging a team-best 17.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, and his tempo-free numbers look even better.
Nearly every relevant metric is either steady, or up. In some cases, dramatically. About the only area Ware has seen a meaningful dip is in block rate, but with a big frontline and an expanded offensive role, it’s not surprising to see him get fewer opportunities and perhaps focus more of his energy elsewhere.
Woodson has been quick to swerve any kind of criticism of Altman’s coaching, but he hasn’t exactly avoided the question either. Because it’s not like Ware, a one-time top-10 prospect, was an unknown project when he headed for Eugene.
“I’m not knocking where he’s been, the coaches that coached him,” Woodson said last week, “but I coach a different way. That’s not even knowing how the other coaches coach when they’re in practice. You have to come to practice with energy. You have to play hard. That was a knock on him. He’s starting to figure that part of it out.”
Much to Indiana’s benefit. Even beyond the numbers, Ware’s presence is winning games, like it did Tuesday night when he closed out defensively on Olivier Nkamhoua, and then tipped the inbound pass when the Wolverines tried to set up a last-second shot to tie.
With his name climbing into the first round of 2024 draft projections, his transfer to IU is working out both for him and his team.
What to do this weekend
We’re going to sidestep the football transfer portal chaos for one more week, given Indiana hasn’t had the chance to bring its own visitors to campus yet. There will still be a handful of notes below.
With Indiana in Atlanta — what some call the best city on the planet — and a lot of fans headed down, Talking Points figured it would offer some recommendations on sights and eats for those spending their weekend in the Capital of the South.
Can’t go wrong with Mary Mac’s (old-school Southern cooking) or Atlanta Breakfast Club downtown. Expect a bit of a wait in either case, but they’ll be worth it. If you’re staying closer to the suburbs, Buttermilk Kitchen on Roswell Road is a safe bet.
Fox Bros. BBQ is as good as any in the city. It’s a bit of a go-to but there’s a reason for that, and with multiple locations it’s accessible depending upon where you’re staying. If you’re up in the suburbs, Heirloom Market on Akers Mill Road doesn’t have a ton of seating but is really good.
Busy Bee Café on the west side is famous for its fried chicken (can you tell what I’ll be prioritizing this weekend?). Papi’s Cuban & Caribbean Grill on Ponce de Leon would have to work to steer you wrong.
South City Kitchen Midtown is great for Southern food. The Optimist on Howell Mill Road has a diverse seafood selection. Fat Matt’s Rib Shack does counter service and features live blues music, while Delbar Middle Eastern in Inman Park is also just a quick skip from downtown.
If you’d like to go big and treat yourself, Bones is the best steakhouse in town. It won’t run cheap, but it’s worth it. Just remember, there’s a dress code.
Café Intermezzo broke my heart when it closed its location in the Atlanta airport. The original, on Peachtree Street in Midtown, is easily my favorite spot in the city for dessert and coffee.
In no particular order: the aquarium, the High Museum of Art, the Botanical Gardens, the Sun Dial restaurant atop the Westin downtown, the World of Coca-Cola, Skate the Station, an outdoor ice-skating rink at Atlantic Station downtown.
See y’all in Atlanta.
IU basketball fans will bring vivid memories with them this weekend, of the 2002 Final Four run or the 2012 Sweet 16 shootout with Kentucky. But do you remember why the city holds significance for Indiana’s football program?
News & Notes
∎ Brendan Sorsby, IU’s starting quarterback across the latter half of last season, announced his commitment to Cincinnati on Wednesday afternoon. Sorsby entered the portal during the transition from Tom Allen to Curt Cignetti.
∎ Jaylin Lucas and Cam Camper both entered the portal Wednesday. Lucas was already tweeting offers, including one from Penn State. It’s probably fair to say Lucas’ upside at this point is first on special teams. Indiana struggled at times to involve him in its offense as much as Lucas will have liked, but absent the Louisville game, he also never really found a clear role in the scheme either. Camper can be an instant-impact wide receiver transfer for someone, provided the knee that’s given him so much trouble since his ACL tear midseason in 2022 is healthy.
∎ Donaven McCulley should be high on Cignetti’s list of players to keep, but the cost is rising. Penn State, South Carolina, Mississippi State and, perhaps most notably, Michigan have all gotten involved this week. McCulley is expected to visit Kentucky this weekend, and it’s likely he’ll get the Wolverines on his schedule in the near future.
∎ In a change of direction from what was originally planned, Cignetti will not coach James Madison in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23. Cignetti originally indicated he planned to coach the Dukes in their first-ever bowl, but the school has since announced offensive line coach and interim head coach Damian Wroblewski, will coach that game. Cignetti’s decision to retain Bob Bostad at Indiana means Wroblewski likely won’t be coming to Bloomington with the rest of Cignetti’s offensive staff.
Bill Mallory’s 1987 Indiana team appeared in the Peach Bowl, capping a season that saw the Hoosiers defeat Michigan and Ohio State — the latter result prompted Buckeyes coach Earl Bruce to declare it “the darkest day” in Ohio State history — before routing Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket game. IU traveled to Atlanta, where it faced legendary coach Johnny Majors’ Tennessee team, losing 27-22.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana Hoosiers basketball: Winning formula, Kel’el Ware’s breakout