Naysayer: Where’s Waldo?

Let’s play the fun searching game Where’s Waldo?

Let’s play the fun searching game Where’s Waldo?

But for this game, the red-clad Waldo in reference is not in the stands but on the court in the form of players—yes, players for Indiana men’s hoops.

With the huge road win at Maryland on Sunday, the Hoosiers have put together a two-game winning streak for the first time since December. Prior to these badly needed wins, the Hoosiers were in the throes of a very rough patch. On paper, coach Mike Woodson’s team looked good early. With two five-star players and some good role players, they looked like they would become a challenger for the top three or four spots in the Big Ten race. Now, they are fighting to get a bye in the upcoming Big Ten tournament, and these two wins go a long way toward that goal.

But when the regular season began, the veil of weak competition was lifted, and the Hoosiers’ biggest weakness was exposed—a lack of leadership. With so many first-half leads gone sour, there has yet to be a player who steps up to lead the team in crunch time. Despite senior and fan favorite Trey Galloway’s solid game in Maryland, he is just too inconsistent to secure the role full-time, though he has tried. A great defender with great court awareness and hustle, Galloway just hasn’t been Waldo this season.

Kel’el Ware, a clear-cut option at the beginning of the season, also hasn’t developed into a court leader and probably won’t get the chance. He is projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming 2024 NBA draft. Even though Woodson said that playing against Purdue’s Zach Edey was an “eye-opener” for Ware, his player potential is still vastly untapped.

Ware, a sophomore transfer from Oregon, was a five-star recruit ranked seventh overall by 247Sports and and eighth by ESPN in 2022. At 7-feet tall, Ware should be Waldo. He has the talent to be one of the most dominant centers in the Big Ten today —notwithstanding Edey. He is athletic, long, and can score. But he disappears during games. Ware did not score for the first 16 minutes in the Maryland win but finished with 9 points and 15 rebounds.

This leaves Mackenzie Mgbako, Gabe Cupps, or sophomore Malik Reneau. All have the capability and play in positions to be Waldo but haven’t become him.

Freshman Mgbako, another five-star recruit, ranked between eight and 10 nationally in 2023. Athletic and a prolific scorer in high school (16.3 points and 9.2 rebounds), he is the leading freshman scorer in the Big Ten, averaging just over 11 points. But he also disappears during games. In Maryland, he scored 24 points in dominant play … but he also scored the same total number of points in a Big Ten three-game stretch, two of which the Hoosiers lost. At 6 feet, 8 inches, he may be able to develop into the role, but so far this season, his stretches of brilliance are too far apart. He is a Waldo candidate for next season.

Dayton, Ohio, native and the son of a coach, Cupps was famous before he ever walked onto the IU campus. His 3-point shooting contest with LeBron James has over 1.5 million views on YouTube. He would be the natural fit for Waldo. But his inconsistent play, ball handling under pressure, and lack of scoring this year (averaging 3 per contest) reduced him to filling the “just get the ball down the court and don’t lose it” role. He is often left unguarded beyond the arc and has no discernible driving skills yet.

But in Cupps’ defense, Woodson threw him into the tornado feet-first in his desperate search for a dependable ball handler. On offense, Cupps doesn’t look to score, but he is capable, as evidenced early in Sunday’s win when he dropped in 5 quick points, then was not heard of again. He seems satisfied with just distributing the orange. Isn’t it odd how, when highly touted high school stars enter this level of play, the shot is the first thing to disappear? He should take a page out of Purdue’s Braden Smith’s book and spend some time working on his strength, quickness, and ability to get open. If he can accomplish a similar summertime paradigm shift, he can be Woodson’s Waldo next year.

Reneau, on the other hand, has displayed flashes of brilliance. Against the Terps, he had a solid game, with 14 points, five rebounds, and two assists. He is always a scoring threat and has the ability and talent to control the tempo of a game, like he did playing for Montverde Academy, where he led his team to back-to-back GEICO Nationals titles. For short stretches, he is in control, then fades into the hardwood floor. The 6-foot, 9-inch Miami, Florida, native is one of three Hoosiers to have appeared in every game this season, starting in three, and averages 16 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest. Solid numbers for an aspiring Waldo, but his real value is scoring and rebounding the ball, not dishing out assists, although he averages 2.7 of those per game.

The jury is still out on coach Woodson’s ability to develop big men, win consistently, and recruit and develop leaders. Ware and Mgbako provide the Hoosiers with height, athletic ability, and scoring potential that needs to be nurtured if these players are still on the roster next year. But more importantly, the Hoosiers and their coach need to find the answer to the question, “Where’s Waldo?” After all, these players already wear the red and white stripes. All they need is the title.


At roughly the 16-minute mark of the second half of Indiana’s victory over Minnesota on Wednesday night (its third consecutive win), signs of Waldo appeared in the most unfortunate of situations. With Indiana leading 35-28, senior Anthony Walker went down, grabbing his knee after making a close shot and landing awkwardly.

During the timeout, in a group Waldo movement, the entire IU team came out on the court to either assist or encourage their fallen brother as he left the court, unable to put any pressure on the leg.  

But the fact the leading Waldo candidate Trey Galloway, with another excellent game, was first on the scene to place Walker’s arm around his neck says a lot for him, as well as this team and its mindset for the remainder of the season. That single action may be the catalyst that propels this team to the next level and provides the clarity needed for them to finally “get it” and play accordingly.

From Galloway’s injury forward, Indiana played together and with purpose, something that was missing during their rough losing streak.

That “I’ve got your back” mentality may just transform the Hoosiers into a team to watch in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Let’s see if Waldo appears in the Hoosiers’ final regular season game and beyond. As Woodson said after the game, “Every game is important. We need to win.” Good start.