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Thursday, May 23
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

Indiana’s Cupps stars defensively against Minnesota, lack of offense brings conundrum

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As he had all game, Indiana men’s basketball freshman guard Gabe Cupps looked longingly toward the hoop as he released a shot from his grasp. 

This time — roughly midway through the second half of the Hoosiers’ 74-62 win over Minnesota Friday night — bore the same result as the others: a miss. Cupps watched the ball rattle away and tossed his arms into the air in exasperation. 

As Cupps trotted back on defense, all he could do was offer a sly smirk and chuckle, seemingly trying to scrounge the humor in his ongoing shooting woes. Despite the subpar offensive effort, Cupps was brilliant defensively in his 30 minutes on the floor. 

“All we’re asking him to do is just put heat on the ball,” head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “And for the most part, he did a hell of a job doing that.” 

That dogged pressure is what has made Cupps not only a fan favorite, but a reliable option for Woodson to deploy on opposing team’s lead guards. Despite his slight stature, the Dayton, Ohio, native’s innate ability to stick on ballhandlers like glue was as evident as ever Friday night at Assembly Hall. 

Across from Cupps, Minnesota junior guard Elijah Hawkins — who leads the Big Ten in assists with just under eight per game — was virtually invisible as a scoring option. Hawkins finished the game with just 5 points in 36 minutes, shooting 2-of-12 from the field and 1-of-8 from deep. 

No longer is Cupps’ energy and knack for diving for loose balls an occasional novelty, but rather a staple of Indiana’s defensive identity. With redshirt senior Xavier Johnson sidelined for over a month, Cupps naturally slotted into the lead guard spot. 

When Johnson returned for the New Year, Cupps was relegated to the bench at the beginning of games but retained a sizeable role. Johnson started three consecutive games against Nebraska, Ohio State and Rutgers, but his inconsistencies were glaring. 

Then, against the Scarlet Knights on Jan. 9, Johnson was ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul after hitting a player below the belt. Woodson didn’t specify if the situation was related, but it was Cupps who took the floor with the starters against Minnesota instead of Johnson. 

“In-house stuff,” Woodson said regarding what went into the decision. “I decided to go with Gabe, and Gabe came in and played extremely well. I thought the minutes (Johnson) played were positive minutes to help us win.” 

Johnson logged 17 minutes, 11 of which coming in the second half, and scored 2 points on a pair of free throws. He tied for the team-high with a pair of turnovers and registered a team-worst -13 Plus-Minus rating. 

Cupps, on the other hand, tied for the team-lead with a +19 mark and grabbed four boards, as well. Despite not scoring, Cupps played to the niche he’s created for himself. In Johnson’s absence, Cupps was tasked with slowing a handful of impactful scoring guards. 

On the road against Michigan Dec. 5, Cupps was responsible for guarding Wolverine sophomore guard Dug McDaniel, who averages 17.8 points per game. The shifty, long-range shooting McDaniel only scored 13 points with Cupps as his primary defender. 

McDaniel went 3-of-14 from the field and failed to make a 3-pointer, and over half of his points came from the charity stripe. Against then No. 2 Kansas on Dec. 16, Cupps played a career-high 37 minutes as the primary defender of Jayhawk redshirt senior guard Dajuan Harris Jr. 

Harris — who played the entire 40 minutes — managed just 12 points. At nearly every defensive challenge thrown his way, Cupps has passed the test. 

“He’s done it before,” Woodson said. “He’s been doing it pretty much all season when we stick him out on real quick guards.” 

Yet, while Cupps’ defensive ability is perhaps beyond what fans could’ve imagined from a first-year point guard, his playmaking on offense has lagged behind. Frequently, including Friday night, Cupps passes on open looks to take an extra dribble or make a pass. 

Cupps has only scored more than 5 points once this season, and he’s only taken more than five shots in a game once, as well. Against Minnesota, Cupps shot 0-of-5 from the field and missed his only 3-point attempt. 

Aside from sophomore forward Kaleb Banks, who logged just three minutes, Cupps was the only Hoosier to not record a point. A scoring outburst wasn’t needed from Cupps given Indiana’s diversified offensive performance, but on a night where three starters don’t score at least 16 points, it might be. 

It is currently unclear who will start alongside senior guard Trey Galloway in the backcourt Jan. 16 against Purdue, but Woodson will have to wrestle with a layered decision between the defensively reliable and offensively ineffective Cupps and the highly volatile, but uber-experienced Johnson. 

Follow reporters Will Foley (@foles24) and Matt Press (@MattPress23) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season. 

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