Mike Woodson said in March he’s never played through the post as a basketball coach like he did with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson.
Somewhere over the course of his first two seasons as the IU head coach, the term “buddy ball” was coined in reference to the pair creating for each other on the offensive end.
Woodson wasn’t sure what to expect this year as his roster went through a major overhaul during offseason.
But it’s clear now — for better or worse, buddy ball is back.
Through three games, center Kel’el Ware and power forward Malik Reneau are Indiana’s leading scorers at 18.3 and 15.0 points per game, respectively.
The big man tandem is feasting on undersized mid-major competition, and they’re doing so efficiently. Ware is shooting 74.1 percent and Reneau 58.1 percent on the season. And in true buddy ball fashion, they’re facilitating each other. Ware has seven assists on the season, and Reneau has 12.
“They’re really connecting in terms of making plays for one another, high-low plays,” Woodson said on Thursday after Indiana defeated Wright State 89-80 in Bloomington. “They both are extremely good passers with the basketball.”
But buddy ball has not been Indiana’s friend when it comes to guarding the 3-point arc so far this season.
Wright State made 11-of-26 3-pointers (42.3 percent), continuing a trend that has placed the Hoosiers in real jeopardy of losing in each of their first three games. Overall, opponents have made 37-of-98 threes (32.6 attempts per game, 37.8 percent) to open the season, and the heavy volume from deep has caused other problems, like the 38 offensive rebounds the Hoosiers have given up through three games.
“It is a concern,” Woodson said of the offensive rebounds his team is giving up. “A lot of it is because the three teams are really taking a lot of three-point shots against us, and long shots, long rebounds.”
By deciding to play two post-oriented big men together, Woodson has placed a heavy burden on Reneau, who is switching screens on the perimeter. That leaves him away from the basket, adding to IU’s rebounding struggles. And it also pairs the sophomore forward against smaller, quicker guards who have learned to hunt the long ball against the Hoosiers.
“It’s definitely challenging, but Coach wouldn’t give us no challenge that we can’t handle,” Reneau said on Thursday evening. “Guarding little six-footers or 6’1″ people, they’re quick so you’ve got to give a little step, but be able to contest the shot when they’re ready to pull up.”
Reneau will be under the microscope when IU faces its first high-major opponent of the season, none other than defending national champion UConn in New York.
The Huskies start former IU recruiting target Alex Karaban at the power forward spot, and he takes more than four threes a game and makes 38.7 percent. UConn also features former Rutgers sharpshooter Cam Spencer, who has shot eight threes per game and made 45.8 percent so far, and Tristen Newton, who has shot 4.7 threes per game and is making 35.7 percent.
Those three players alone are attempting more threes per game than the entire IU team — so the Hoosiers should expect more of the same this weekend.
But Indiana probably won’t be looking to trade threes with UConn. The Hoosiers have only shot 40 times from beyond the arc total in three games, and they’ve made just 11.
Instead they’ll find out of their new edition of buddy ball can translate against a team with legitimate length and athleticism. The Huskies have 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan, and 6-foot-10 Samson Johnson to counter IU’s size.
But Ware had a huge game a year ago against UConn, with 18 points and 9 rebounds. And Reneau believes his new buddy will be up to the challenge once again.
“Kel’el is a big frame, very agile, can move, and just knowing that any step he gets on his defender, he’s got a chance to raise up and get dang near to the top of the backboard,” Reneau said. “You can throw it anywhere to him.”
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