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How Indiana basketball’s Mackenzie Mgbako overcame a slow start, lived up to 5-star hype

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Indiana men’s basketball head coach Mike Woodson sat at a black table inside Madison-Square Garden, donning a white dress shirt, zebra tie and glasses, shaking his head and tossing his hands into the air. 

It’s Nov. 20, and Woodson’s Hoosiers are minutes removed from a 74-66 win over the University of Louisville – during which Indiana’s 5-star freshman forward, Mackenzie Mgbako, scored only 4 points in nine minutes of action. 

Woodson’s upset — but not about Mgbako’s performance. Instead, his frustration stems from the burdensome expectations placed on the 19-year-old's shoulders. 

“All you guys expect him to be a great player right now because he's got that 5-star tag on him,” Woodson said. “I think that's bullshit. The bottom line is that he's still young, he's trying to learn the college game.” 

Mgbako flew back to Bloomington with 6 total points scored over the Hoosiers’ two games in New York. He’d been held to 4 points or fewer in four of Indiana’s first five contests and was 1-of-13 from 3-point range — far from the heights many expected from a consensus top-10 recruit. 

Suddenly, it all changed. 

The Gladstone, New Jersey, native scored in double figures in each of the next eight games, making at least one triple in all but one appearance. He nailed a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to help cement Indiana’s first road victory at Michigan on Dec. 5. He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Jan. 2. 

Mgbako’s arrow was firmly pointing up — but he hit a brief rut, notching just 6 and 5 points against Nebraska and Ohio State, respectively, upon returning to Big Ten play. 

He responded strongly, scoring at least 11 points in each of the following seven games. For the first time in his college career, the 6-foot-8, 217-pound Mgbako led the Hoosiers in scoring, notching 19 points against Minnesota on Jan. 12. 

After his resurgence in the victory over the Golden Gophers, Mgbako starred in the following three games — all against ranked foes in Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois — as he averaged just shy of 15 points per game. 

“He's been great,” Woodson said Jan. 25, voicing a much different tone than two months prior. “I have no complaints. He's a freshman that came in with high accolades, but AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and high school basketball is not the same as college basketball in the Big Ten. It's just not. So, there's a learning curve for all these young players when they come to the next level.” 

After a narrow escape over Army on Nov. 12, Woodson said Mgbako needed to play harder to earn more minutes. Defensively, Mgbako was behind the 8-ball. Woodson wanted better communication and more energy to get him up to speed. 

For Mgbako, Woodson’s defensive philosophy — known as the ‘nail-slot-rim' — was a culture shock from what he played at Roselle Catholic High School, as the near-side digs Woodson preaches requires more activity and attentiveness. Mgbako attributed the schematic change to his slow defensive start but quickly grew under Woodson’s guidance. 

Known as a gifted scorer, Mgbako started turning the corner defensively in Big Ten play. He said after the Hoosiers’ 70-62 loss at Illinois on Jan. 27 that he was considerably more comfortable on defense and had grown as a communicator. 

Mgbako added the biggest difference in his skill set from the season opener to his 20th game was knowing where he needed to be defensively, as Indiana’s scrambling defense was a lot to absorb — but he’d grasped it, all the while continuing to fill up the scoring column. 

“He’s definitely grown into the player he’s supposed to be,” Indiana sophomore center Kel’el Ware said Feb. 2. “He had a rough start at the beginning of the season, but now he’s starting to get comfortable, shooting the ball well and just getting more used to it now.” 

As Mgbako perused the court inside the State Farm Center at Illinois, fans in the student section — known as the ‘Orange Krush’ — asked a question: “What did you want?” 

It was a dig at Mgbako’s Oct. 22 arrest — two misdemeanors for criminal trespess and resisting law enforcement — which occurred outside of a Bloomington Taco Bell. The case was resolved, but the jokes persisted. Mgbako responded by posting his first career double-double, logging 12 points and 12 rebounds against the Fighting Illini. Perhaps nothing showed his maturity better. 

For weeks, the arrest seemed a fitting microcosm of Mgbako’s season — head-scratching, underwhelming, disappointing. The Preseason Big Ten Freshman of the Year, averaging only 5 points per game through his first five games in college with an arrest attached to his resume. 

Instead of allowing his early struggles to compound, Mgbako flipped the script. He’s one of four Hoosiers averaging double-digit points, leads the team in 3-point makes and is a mainstay in the starting lineup. 

Now, Woodson, wearing a black jacket with ‘Indiana’ in white letters across his heart and a black-and-white Indiana ballcap donned atop his head, can reflect on Mgbako’s ascent with pride.

“He had his struggles, but he's continued to work and we're trying to push him to play at a high level,” Woodson said. “I'm pretty pleased with his progress and where he is today. He's just got to keep working.” 

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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