CHICAGO — Malik Reneau’s freshman season at Indiana has been frustratingly tantalizing.
He’s flashed potential from the beginning. He forced his way into Indiana’s crunch-time lineup during the big road win over Xavier in November. But he’s had so many moments — and prolonged stretches — of typical freshman mistakes, rawness, and ineffectiveness.
But during Indiana’s win over Maryland on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament, Reneau provided a reminder of his capabilities — and showed growth from earlier faults.
“(Reneau’s play off the bench) was very important,” Woodson said. “I tried (Jordan) Geronimo a little bit, but I thought Malik, being a freshman, he played up. I was proud of him. He did a lot of wonderful things.”
Reneau grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds, and scored eight key points on a 4-for-9 clip. He gave IU 21 minutes off the bench, his biggest workload since January 28 and tied for his third-largest of the season.
It wasn’t a flawless performance, though. He committed two turnovers, and missed some makable inside looks — “chippies,’ as Woodson called them.
But on the whole, it was one of his best games of the season. Especially with how he’d played coming in. Entering Friday’s game, Reneau had averaged 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 14 minutes per game over his last 10 — dating back to Indiana’s late-January loss at Maryland.
“I think me and Malik complement each other very well,” Trayce Jackson-Davis said. “When he’s playing his game, I’m just watching him — he’s a freshman, but he’s doing his thing out there. Props to him, because sometimes it’s hard coming off the bench, especially (if) you’re cold. But he comes off and he gives us a spark. We needed it a lot tonight.”
Reneau also showed a lot of defensive improvement Friday.
Fouling has been one of his biggest weaknesses this season. He can get tough calls at times, as his reputation grew as a frequent fouler. But the freshman has just had trouble defending without fouling. He’s finished with at least four fouls 11 times this season — and would’ve done so more often with more playing time.
That was often a contributing factor in games where he played fewer minutes. Woodson was forced to sit him once he got into foul trouble, or if his overall struggles required him to bring on a stronger defender.
But against Maryland, Reneau looked like a different defender. Terps forwards Julian Reese and Patrick Emilien dealt with their own foul trouble, but they weren’t able to get much to fall offensively. They combined for nine points on 3-for-7 shooting.
Jackson-Davis is Indiana’s primary post defender, and was most responsible for any IU interior defensive success. But Reneau was a real factor in that as well — and that’s more than can be said of him in many games this season. The freshman did well with keeping his arms straight up, instead of coming down and committing a foul.
Reneau picked up just one foul against Maryland, his ninth game this season finishing with one or zero. And with Race Thompson in some first-half foul trouble, Reneau’s ability to stay on the court — along with his effectiveness — was key.
He’s worked to improve at defending without fouling, and he repaid his team’s faith in him on Friday.
“Just trusting Coach, being able to trust me on the court too, and my teammates giving me that confidence to play how I want to play,” Reneau said. “Just being tough and not letting the other team score.”
The Hoosiers are at their best when they’re getting production outside of Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino.
Those two will almost always be Indiana’s alphas. But when IU can get Miller Kopp, Trey Galloway, or Race Thompson rolling, it’s huge.
And, particularly, it’s big if Indiana can get anything out of its bench. That hasn’t been there for the Hoosiers on a lot of nights this season, and they’ve been able to win plenty of games without it.
But when IU gets this version of Reneau — the one who’s playing so well that it’s hard to sub him out — it changes everything.
Woodson thinks Reneau is capable of playing like this every time he takes the court. If he can keep finding this level in postseason play, Indiana will be a deeper team — and a better team — as March progresses.
“He’s big enough to do that. He should do that every time we put him in there. I thought he had a good game going,” Woodson said. “He wasn’t in foul trouble where he has to sit over next to me. So they let him play a little bit tonight, and we reaped the benefits from it.”