NEW YORK — For the second day in a row at the Empire Classic, Mike Woodson had to go to his bench early.
Indiana men’s basketball saw guard Xavier Johnson commit two fouls in just over two minutes on Sunday against UConn. On Monday, freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako picked up two fouls even quicker.
IU never really recovered from Johnson’s foul trouble on Sunday — the backcourt was a big problem in that loss.
But Monday, Indiana’s bench was up to the task. And it was one of the main reasons the Hoosiers pulled out a 74-66 win over Louisville at Madison Square Garden.
Kaleb Banks checked in for Mgbako less than two minutes into the contest, and he quickly got into the action, blocking Tre White in the paint. It set the tone for how he and the rest of IU’s reserves would play in this game.
“We definitely felt it today. Everybody had a good game,” Banks said after the game. “As a group, collectively, we brought a lot of energy today out there. We really helped the team win.”
Banks played very sparingly as a freshman last season. His 25 minutes Monday shattered his previous career-high. And the extra playing time was well-earned. He was key defensively, and came away with three blocks and three steals to show for that effort.
The sophomore scored just four points, but grabbed eight rebounds and dished three assists. Woodson kept him on the floor in crunch time, a lineup arguably even more important than the starting five.
Banks hasn’t been used to playing this big — figuratively and literally — of a role for Indiana. But he capitalized on his opportunity in New York.
“He rebounded, he defended, and he got a couple steals, three or four assists, that’s making an impact when you come into the ballgame,” Woodson said. “I tip my hat off to him because he’s patiently been waiting to play probably more minutes, and probably played more minutes tonight than he’s played since he’s been here.”
IU got strong outings from Payton Sparks and Anthony Walker as well — both also in the most minutes they’ve played at IU so far.
Sparks shot 4 for 5 for nine points with three rebounds and a block. The Ball State transfer wasn’t always lockdown on defense, as Louisville bigs were able to score on him with relative ease when they backed him down and got him moving laterally. But the sophomore had some good defensive moments as well, and he made some important plays on offense.
Walker was huge for the Hoosiers in the first half. When their starters weren’t getting much going for extended stretches of play, the Miami transfer just made things happen on the court. He scored nine points in the first half, and finished with 11 on a 3-0f-7 clip. The fifth-year senior added seven rebounds and a block.
Walker played aggressively, and that’s reflected through the five fouls he drew on Louisville defenders.
“Ant Walker and Payton played pretty well in the beginning of the game,” Johnson said. “Ant came in and was aggressive. That’s what we need Ant to do, and that’s what coach wants Ant to do as well.”
Those reserve forwards also helped Indiana get through a key stretch in the second half, when both Kel’el Ware and Malik Reneau battled foul trouble.
CJ Gunn contributed off the bench as well, with six points on a 3-for-7 line, and some solid defense in his 13 minutes. Gabe Cupps didn’t score, and saw his fewest minutes to date, as he had trouble making a real impact on this game. But the freshman has shown what he’s capable of in other outings.
Indiana is a team with some very front-facing, obvious warts in the first part of this season. The Hoosiers are fouling too much, and Reneau, in particular, appears to still be struggling with the foul problems that plagued him last season. They’re shooting 26.4 percent from 3-point range, a bottom-60 mark in Division I. The group is making the sorts of mental errors that can prove costly in conference play. And Mgbako, perhaps the biggest X-factor for this group’s ceiling and potential, has endured early-career struggles.
It’s a long season, but Indiana does need to work through some of those issues before habits become ingrained and it becomes unfixable. That said, a performance like the Hoosiers got from their bench on Monday is a positive sign for this team’s depth and its ability to adapt when things don’t break their way early in games.
“Kaleb Banks, I thought, played extremely well,” Woodson said. “I’d like to think that we’ll learn from this game and continue to grow. Big Payton was great for us. CJ was great. Gabe. Everybody that played tonight contributed. And that’s how we’ve got to play the rest of the way.”