Mackenzie Mgbako came to Indiana men’s basketball this year as one of the highest-rated commits in program history.
But the start to his freshman season had been difficult, in several ways. He was arrested at a Taco Bell in Bloomington in late October, which didn’t lead to any suspension from IU head coach Mike Woodson.
And on the court, he just didn’t quite settle in through the first five games. Mgbako particularly struggled defensively, and wasn’t producing enough offensively to make up for it. He’d scored in double-figures just once, against Wright State — and that was the only game of the first five that Mgbako played in crunch time.
Woodson, early on, didn’t shy away from speaking bluntly about the freshman. After IU’s win over Army, he said Mgbako needed “to play harder and do the things that we want done on both ends of the floor.”
Woodson then tried to take pressure off Mgbako, expressing confidence that he’ll figure it out.
Mgbako took some big steps in that direction Sunday. He finally enjoyed a breakout performance in Indiana’s win over Harvard in Indianapolis, scoring 18 points on a 7-for-13 clip with eight rebounds and an assist. He shot just 1 for 5 from 3-point range, though he nailed an early 3-pointer that was changed to a two on replay. Mgbako was shooting with a lot more confidence than he’s displayed to this point.
“Just trusting in the offense and what coach Woody has to offer,” Mgbako said about what helped him get into a flow Sunday. “Just staying locked in, staying aggressive, staying true to my game. Just seeing what the defense gives me and responding with that.”
Mgabko was much better defensively as well. In games where he struggled, he’d go rogue at times and abandon his assignment, which left shooters open. He still wasn’t perfect in that regard against Harvard, but he’s getting noticeably better.
Plus/minus is a stat to be taken with a grain of salt, but Mgbako finished with a team-best plus-23 mark — even despite Kel’el Ware scoring 28 points. That speaks to the freshman’s performance on both ends on Sunday.
“He was better tonight,” Woodson said. “He’s a freshman. You guys expect so much from these young kids. It’s a learning process when you come out of high school and you go to college and you play college basketball. He’s got a ways to go. But he’s making progress. Tonight was progress. He’s just got to continue to work. Do that, and I think good things will happen.”
Woodson is justified in trying to relieve any pressure Mgbako is feeling as he continues adapting to college basketball. But if this game was the turning point for the freshman and he can replicate these sorts of performances with consistency going forward, it would be huge for the Hoosiers.
Mgabko may be the biggest X-factor on this IU team. The Hoosiers’ ceiling this season is pretty closely linked to how good their star forward is throughout Big Ten play and beyond. In that sense, the growing pains in some of these early games have made things even harder for IU.
And Woodson knows how important it is to get Mgbako rolling, whether or not he’d talk about it to the media. He’s drawn up several plays for Mgbako coming out of timeouts or off the opening tip over the last few games, trying to set the freshman up with easy looks to get him into a rhythm.
As Woodson’s said, Mgbako is still figuring things out. Not all freshmen — even five-star, top-10 recruits — step onto the court on day one and take over games. And Mgbako didn’t take over this game against Harvard; he’s capable of even bigger nights than he enjoyed Sunday.
But this was Mgbako’s biggest step in the right direction so far. The more steps like that he takes, and the more games he gets under his belt, the better he — and IU — will become.
“Mackenzie just did what he was doing when he first got here. He had a game where he figured it out,” Woodson said. “He’s just got to continue to grow, continue to work, and then let it just happen.”