You could see it coming with how Mike Woodson was talking about him before the season.
And without a doubt, IU basketball freshman guard Gabe Cupps has ascended the depth chart since arriving on campus in June.
The 6-foot-2 point guard was a bit of an afterthought coming into the season, in the shadow of high profile transfer Kel’el Ware, high profile fellow freshman Mackenzie Mgbako, and locked-in starting guards Trey Galloway and Xavier Johnson.
The Centerville, Ohio product came into IU’s first exhibition as part of a second wave of subs over eight minutes into the game. He came in a few minutes earlier the next exhibition, one of two players who were first off the bench.
Cupps certainly flashed potential in those games, but they were exhibitions, after all.
When things got real against Florida Gulf Coast, Cupps subbed in over seven minutes into the game, seemingly still a “reserve” in the traditional sense. In the Army game he came in even earlier, less than five minutes into the game, and first off the bench.
Woodson has followed a pattern since arriving at IU in 2021. It goes like this: Just because you start the game doesn’t mean you’re going to finish it.
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) November 13, 2023
There’s nothing about Cupps’ statistics through two games that would you lead to believe he’s doing anything significant. He’s averaging 5.0 points and 1.5 assists while shooting 43 percent from the field in 20.5 minutes.
But in each of their first two games, with Indiana desperate to avoid losing on its home floor to a team it paid to come to Bloomington, Cupps was one of Woodson’s finishers. Here’s the stats that really matter. Through two games Cupps is averaging 7.5 minutes per first half, and 13 per second — in two very close games.
That unequivocally means one thing for sure — Cupps has earned Woodson’s trust.
And he’s earned the admiration of one of the most beloved players in program history.
Calbert Cheaney arrived at Indiana in 1989 much like Cupps — unheralded and under the radar. Known for his work ethic and competitive fire, Cheaney quickly ascended the depth chart and became the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer.
No one is predicting that kind of career for Cupps, but Cheaney, now IU’s director of player development, has become a fan.
“He’s unbelievable,” Cheaney said of Cupps on Mike Woodson’s radio show on Monday evening. “The nickname I’ve given him is Iron Man. He’s Iron Man.”
Cheaney says his new job primarily entails both helping players to be ready play, and manage their lives off the court. But Cupps is the son of a high school coach and a student of the game. Thus far, he hasn’t required much tutelage from Cheaney when it comes to putting in the work necessary to be ready to play.
One of the habits Cupps brought with him from high school is a daily training routine at 5 a.m. he calls the Breakfast Club. By the time the team practices later in the day, Cupps has already been through a full workout.
“He’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen,” Cheaney said. “He’s just all about trying to be the best he can be. He’s not the biggest kid, he’s not the fastest kid, but he makes up for it with a huge heart and determination, and that’s rare.”
Of course we won’t know just how ready Cupps is this season until the lights get brighter. Indiana will be seriously tested this weekend in New York when they face UConn, and then Louisville or Texas. And then there’s Auburn, Kansas and the Big Ten gauntlet.
There will no doubt be plenty of bumps in the road.
But as a freshman, Cupps is already bringing attributes seemingly every college coach is starving for.
“Great basketball IQ,” Cheaney said. “As a freshman he’s one of our talkers. He talks and he’s always in communication trying to help the guys. Hopefully our guys will be able to understand that’s what you need to do in order to win.”
Woodson called Cupps “tremendous” and a “winner” after the first game.
In the second game Cupps was erratic at times but hit a 3-pointer with two minutes to go that finally put away Army. He stepped into the shot without hesitation.
When asked why he went with three guards to end the game, Woodson was seemingly talking about his freshman guard, who was the only non-starter on the floor.
“I’m going to play guys that want to play and play the right way,” Woodson said.
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