BLOOMINGTON — Kel’el Ware has answered a lot of questions through his first month playing for Indiana men’s basketball.
The biggest storyline entering IU’s season was how the Hoosiers would adapt with a new-look roster and program stalwart Trayce Jackson-Davis gone. Ware was one of the biggest keys, stepping into Jackson-Davis’ center spot. But they’re different players, and there was a level of uncertainty over his true fit with Indiana and whether he could hang with some of the difficult big men in the Big Ten.
Since the season began, Ware has been IU’s best player. And on Friday, the sophomore aced his first test in conference play. He was a force in the paint as Indiana took down Maryland, 65-53.
Ware led Indiana (6-1, 1-0 Big Ten) with 18 points on an 8-for-12 clip, and he grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. The Terrapins (4-4, 0-1) had no answers for him, and they tried a lot of tactics to limit him.
Julian Reese guarded him for much of the game, and Reese is typically a solid defender when he can avoid foul trouble. But Ware routinely dominated that matchup. Maryland head coach Kevin Willard put IU transfer Jordan Geronimo on him at times, and it didn’t get much better.
“I don’t think we were comfortable with anyone on him,” Willard said after the game. “They’ve done a really good job of — with Malik (Reneau) and Ware — pounding it inside.”
When Ware arrived at Indiana this past offseason, the big questions about him were about his motor and his work ethic. He left Oregon after last season with talks about some issues in practice and off the court limiting his on-court ability and keeping his minutes down in games.
His size and length seemed like a good asset for the Hoosiers, and his outside shooting ability opens things up for IU’s offense in different ways than Jackson-Davis could. But the motor and physicality were real concerns, and his performance against UConn in New York just under two weeks ago gave some credence to those thoughts. Ware didn’t back down from the challenge against Donovan Clingan and the Huskies, and still recorded 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds. But he had some trouble against UConn’s physicality in the paint and shot just 2 for 10 from the field.
Maryland played even more physically against IU on Friday than UConn did. And this time, Ware handled it well. On one of his first touches of the game, the Terps collapsed the paint with three defenders. It didn’t matter.
“He’s been smacked around a little bit this early season. Hey, it’s part of the game, man. You’ve got to get in the fight,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “I thought he did a great job in holding his own and demanding the ball and making plays when he got the ball.”
Through the first seven games of the season, Ware is averaging 17.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game while shooting 64.4 percent on field goals. If the sophomore continues playing at this high level, there will be plenty more games like this ahead, where opponents will throw whatever they have at him.
There are even bigger, tougher matchups in his future than what Maryland gave Ware Friday. But his performance against showed he can handle those challenges.