NEW YORK — Standing in front of Indiana men’s basketball’s bench, senior forward Anthony Walker turned to his right and raised his right arm, inviting the raucous cheers from the Hoosier faithful at Madison Square Garden.
Amid a flurry of back-and-forth runs, Indiana started to culminate one of its own against the University of Louisville on Monday night. After sophomore forward Malik Reneau dropped in a layup to draw the Hoosiers within 1, Walker burst up from his seat and roared.
Walker crouched toward the hardwood and studied Louisville’s ensuing offensive possession carefully. Roughly two minutes later, Indiana senior guard Xavier Johnson converted a fastbreak bucket to put the Hoosiers ahead 65-64, a lead they ultimately wouldn’t relinquish en route to the 74-66 victory.
Throughout the entire sequence, from Reneau’s steal to his dish to Johnson to the ball fatefully falling through the net, Walker nodded his head from the bench with a sly grin, as if to finally sense something come to fruition.
Walker — who tallied a team-high 9 first half points and a season-high 20 minutes — may have only played sparingly throughout the second period, but Indiana doesn’t reach that point without his contributions.
“Ant came in and was aggressive,” Johnson said of Walker after the game. “That’s what we need Ant to do, and that’s what coach wants Ant to do, as well.”
In the Hoosiers’ first four contests of the season, the struggles of the second unit were glaring. Against Florida Gulf Coast University and Army West Point, Indiana’s bench posted just 7 and 12 points, respectively.
Then, in matchups with Wright State University and No. 5 University of Connecticut, the group totaled 26 points, an uptick from the first two outings, but still beneath head coach Mike Woodson’s standards.
Powered by Walker’s breakout performance with the Hoosiers — he transferred from the University of Miami this offseason — Indiana’s bench scored 30 points, over 40% of the team’s total offensive output.
It wasn’t just Walker, though. The Baltimore, Maryland, native’s energy was infectious for the rest of the unit, namely in sophomore guard Kaleb Banks. As a freshman in 2022-23, Banks was a sparse contributor.
He joined the Hoosiers as a 4-star prospect in his high school class and rated among the top-100 players in the nation. Still, he only eclipsed 15 minutes once. Monday night, Banks played 25 minutes and stuffed the stat sheet.
Banks only scored 4 points but grabbed eight rebounds, dished out three assists, swatted three shots and swiped a trio of assists, as well. After having to patiently wait his turn to earn an enhanced role in Woodson’s rotation, Banks finally got it.
And he thrived.
“Just doing the little things, like playing defense, rebounding, blocks,” Banks said. “My mindset coming in is just if I can do those things, I can maybe find my way.”
Banks’ contributions were timely, too. With just over 3:30 remaining against Louisville, and Indiana trailing 64-61, the Cardinals had an opportunity to quell the Hoosiers’ surge, at least slightly, with another bucket.
But when Louisville sophomore guard Skyy Clark lofted a pass toward the basket for an alley-oop attempt, Banks soared into the air to swipe the ball away for a steal. From there, the Hoosiers kickstarted their 13-2 game-winning run.
“He was the biggest, honestly,” Johnson. “For a guy not to play as much before coming into this game, and to show what he did today, I’m really proud of him.”
Aside from Walker and Banks, the rest of Indiana’s bench offered solid stretches of play. Sophomore guard CJ Gunn had moments of questionable shot selection, but he still tacked on 6 points. And junior forward Payton Sparks, who hadn’t scored more than 2 points this season, poured in 9.
Following four games wherein Indiana’s bench lacked cohesion on both ends of the floor, Monday’s game offered a bit of optimism for the group’s future outlook. And it inspired a notable hope for Walker and Banks, who particularly impressed in their extended stretches of play.
Banks, who wasn’t the team’s most lethal scorer against Louisville — or even among the Hoosiers’ top five scorers — became a microcosm for what Woodson expects out of his bench players.
“He’s still learning,” Woodson said. “But the fact that he rebounded, he defended… that’s making an impact when you come into the ballgame. So I tip my hat off to him.”
Collectively, at least from an energy and physicality standpoint, Indiana’s second unit left little to be desired against Louisville. While they still didn’t churn out a perfect offensive outing, the “little things” Banks cited were enough.
Perhaps most importantly, the bench did more than just keep the team afloat. In previous contests, the Hoosiers often floundered in the absence of junior guard Trey Galloway, sophomore center Kel’el Ware and the rest of the starters, but they became an invaluable piece of Indiana’s performance Monday night.
“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “We got guys that we can trust (to) come off the bench and to keep the game at the same pace.”