CINCINNATI, Ohio — During Indiana’s first two blowout wins, it was easy for coach Mike Woodson to just do the plug-and-play thing when it came to player rotation. He went generously to his bench, they responded well, and the Hoosiers drove to 35- and 52-point wins.
But it was literally a whole new ballgame on Friday night at Xavier, a consensus top-40 team that is set to win more than 20 games this season and book a ticket to the NCAA tournament. That’s fact. The Musketeers with two good bigs and four perimeter players who can shoot it are quite a good team.
Xavier coach Sean Miller, who was back at the Cincinnati school after a successful and battle-tested tenure in Arizona, said frankly after Indiana’s 81-79 win that he was playing to win. He basically just played six guys all night, including three with four fouls for a long stretch of the second half.
Mike Woodson had to take a similar approach. He went on his bench early in the first half and made four substitutions, but when Xavier made a run and took a nine-point lead he brought Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson back into play. Trayce never came out, playing 37 minutes and scoring 30 points. It is the seventh time in his career that he has scored 30 or more goals in a game.
Woodson doesn’t need a pat on the back to keep Jackson-Davis grounded. That’s a simple thing. He’s a first-team All-American for a reason and belongs on the floor every minute of a tight game.
But there were other choices Woodson made, and they paid off in large measure. Most notably, he trusted 6-foot-9 newcomer Malik Reneau with critical moments late in the second half. He made it big and was a big reason Indiana won a non-conference road game for the first time since beating NC State in 2011.
Reneau played 11 minutes in the second half and had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting with three rebounds, an assist, a steal — and zero turnovers. He was on the floor during his first college road game.
“He’s gotten in a lot of trouble, but I trust him,” Woodson said. “He’s solid. I played him with the four fouls because I knew I still had an ace up my sleeve with Race (Thompson) if he folded. I think that’s the beauty of our team this season.
“I just said to them as we finished the huddle, ‘Hey, you know, I wasn’t playing the normal rotations that we were playing the first two games and again, I’m still looking, but stay ready.’ That’s all I can say guys.”
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Indiana’s two high-profile freshmen, Reneau and guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, are just different. We’ve already seen that in just three games.
“You saw him. He and Jalen have both been so consistent since they came on campus in their approach off the field, in the classroom and on the field, well I mean that alone got him able to play.
And he played. Of course, there were some hiccups. He got a technical error for being a bit too enthusiastic after a basket and he missed two free throws in the final seconds where his nerves definitely kicked in.
“It’s just a great atmosphere that makes the crowd shake,” Reneau said. “So you get this nervousness. But Coach Woodson, he just trusts me. During practice I play hard and it shows in the game and he just trusts me. “
Reneau is averaging 12.0 points per game so far — second best on the team — and is also Indiana’s second-best rebounder at 5.0 per game. He’s a 6-9 left-hander, much like Jackson-Davis, and he’s causing all sorts of problems for opposing defenses. That’s why Woodson had him on the floor with Jackson-Davis on the line.
“Malik, being so young, is such a mature player,” Jackson-Davis said. “And he’s really after him on the defensive end of the floor because I feel like his attack is already there. “He’s a matchup nightmare for other teams. He has a great feel for the game, especially situations, IQ and awareness feel like he’s on the floor with me, we really have faith in him and he really showed it.
Woodson quickly falls in love with Reneau this summer. After retiring from Florida after coach Mike White left, Woodson and Hood-Schifino, Reneau’s teammate at national champions Montverde, worked hard to lure Reneau to Bloomington. When he said “yes” to Indiana, Woodson gave him “a big bear hug.”
This excitement doesn’t let up. Reneau has been great so far and he’s giving Indiana a second scoring threat they haven’t really had in recent years, no disrespect to veteran Race Thompson.
Reneau will likely get more and more minutes from Thompson, and that’s totally fine. That’s what great depth is for.
It already paid off massively for Xavier on Friday night. It was a big away win for Indiana and a big confidence boost for sure. More brutal street games are on the horizon in December – in Rutgers (Dec. 3) and Kansas (Dec. 17). There’s also a neutral location game in Las Vegas with Arizona (Dec. 10), so learning how to win on the street is a big, big deal.
Welcome to the big college basketball on the street, Malik. He passed his first test with flying colors and there are many more to come.