If there’s one glaring question surrounding the IU basketball program as the 2023-24 season gets set to tip on Tuesday, it’s guard depth.
That’s especially true since it isn’t clear if one of the guards on the roster, freshman Jakai Newton, will play at all this season.
Combined, Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway are going into their tenth season of college basketball, so Mike Woodson has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to experience.
But beyond that duo, who will start on Tuesday when the Hoosiers face Florida Gulf Coast (6:30 p.m. ET, BTN), there is far more uncertainty.
And Woodson hasn’t been willing to speculate much this preseason about how things will unfold for his new players. He has reliably defaulted to “only time will tell” for most questions about the outlook for his overhauled roster.
One thing Woodson does know when he surveys the guards on his bench however, is he’s got a contributor in freshman point guard Gabe Cupps.
“No doubt he’s going to play quality minutes. He’s proven that,” Woodson said on Monday. “That’s the reason why we recruited him. He just does all the little things that you’re supposed to do.”
Woodson has his eyes on more than just a backup point guard role for the freshman from Ohio. On his radio show last week, the third-year head coach said in the NBA he played two point guards together and had success with it. After watching Cupps this fall, he wants to test that approach, pairing him up with Johnson on the floor.
Cupps did nothing to discourage Woodson’s confidence in him in the team’s two exhibition games when he contributed seven assists against no turnovers and added three steals.
“I wasn’t shocked that he came out and had poise, because he’s that type of competitor,” Woodson said.
Cupps looked particularly dialed-in on the defensive end, picking up full court in both games and looking a lot like Johnson in the process. Cupps believes the last five months spent dealing with Johnson has him more than ready.
“When I get out here, guys usually aren’t as fast or strong as X (Xavier Johnson) that I’m guarding every day in practice,” Cupps said after Indiana’s exhibition against Marian. “I feel confident that if I can get up and pressure X every day, then I can come out here and pressure guys up the floor the whole time.”
Woodson said on his radio show Cupps and the the second unit are giving the starters all they can handle.
That’s something Cupps takes pride in orchestrating.
“We try to take it to the red team (starters) every day and we try to challenge them,” Cupps said. “So everybody just competes on our team, and I think when everybody’s going at each other and they have the thought in mind they’re just making each other better, that’s when you get a really successful team. I think I’ve done a good job in practice of just coming consistently and pressuring the ball all the time.”
If Cupps is ready to contribute 10 to 20 productive minutes against high major competition and his fellow reserve C.J. Gunn can do the same, that’s where a rosier outlook for Indiana starts to take shape.
Already we’ve seen that freshman wing Mackenzie Mgbako can be a shot maker from beyond the arc, and the hope is Cupps and Gunn can provide more playmaking and scoring punch.
While he’s enthusiastic about his young guard, Woodson is wise enough to know that the 19-year-old Cupps will face some bumps in the road.
“He’s going to have his ups and downs based on matchups and things of that nature, but he’s a tough competitor,” Woodson said. “Sometimes toughness gets you through it. So I’m very pleased with his progress and hope that he just continues to grow and learn the college game because he’s got a long way to go.”
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