INDIANAPOLIS — Kel’el Ware could’ve leapt into the air and crashed the rim, using his seemingly boundless 7-foot frame to demoralize the helpless defender in front of him.
Indiana men’s basketball’s sophomore center, unguarded through his plunge into the lane, instead opted for a crafty layup attempt, which clanked around the rim. Ware grabbed the missed shot with his enormous hands and tossed it through the hoop for a bucket.
In the Hoosiers’ 89-76 win over Harvard University Sunday afternoon, Ware scored 9 straight points in the back end of the second half. He finished with a career-high 28 in a performance that cemented the big man as Indiana’s go-to scoring option.
Ware also remedied something head coach Mike Woodson has expressed frustration with over the past few games: rebounding. Against the Crimson, Ware brought down eight boards, four offensive, and was a dominant presence down low when the ball was in the air.
Ware said staying in shape was key to his rebounding efforts.
“We’ve got this box out drill we do in practice,” Ware said after the game. “So just constantly working on that, getting a body on a body, and being physical.”
Last season, Trayce Jackson-Davis — now with the Golden State Warriors — could provide the Hoosiers a bucket whenever necessary. The game plan was simple. If Indiana needed a score, it would feed Jackson-Davis in the post and let him work.
As a senior, Jackson-Davis averaged 20.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game en route to First-Team All-American and a bevy of other honors. Replacing his production wasn’t going to be an exact science.
When Ware announced his decision to transfer to Indiana from the University of Oregon, the idea of a 7-footer with an ability to score from all three levels and swat shots anywhere in his vicinity was enticing for fans.
But he came with some noteworthy baggage. At Oregon, Ware’s effort was called into question not just by fans, but his head coach Dana Altman. Altman publicly derided Ware’s motor on January 26, 2022, which came in the midst of a noteworthy reduction of Ware’s minutes.
A former 5-star prospect with lofty expectations, Ware averaged just 6.7 points and four rebounds per game as a freshman. This offseason, Woodson expressed optimism about Ware.
Woodson was more than aware of his troubles with the Ducks but felt confident he could provide Ware with what he needed to be successful.
“He made the commitment to me,” Woodson said at Indiana’s basketball media day Sept. 20. “I’m going to push him to play at a higher level to help us win basketball games.”
Through six games, Ware has quelled most of the concerns that clouded him. He’s played at least 30 minutes in all but one contest this season and is averaging team highs of 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds.
Sunday night, he was a willing rebounder and seemed to relish contact. But his finesse adds an entirely different dimension. Including a few turnaround jumpers, Ware shot an astonishing 12-13 from the field.
Along with sophomore forward Malik Reneau, who is heavily inclined to operate primarily near the basket, Ware has been able to take advantage of floaters and hooks slightly further away from the hoop.
“(Reneau) and big fella, they kind of connected now,” Woodson said. “Which is kind of nice to see. Especially when teams play a zone, we got to be able to make plays inside of the zone to be competitive.”
Against Harvard’s zone defense, Indiana posted 50 of its 89 points from inside the paint. It’s 3-point shooting continued to be a struggle — the Hoosiers were outscored 27-16 from range — but it was irrelevant.
Even with double teams crashing toward him as the game wore on, Ware still found room to wiggle close to the rim and slam home dunks. His ability to score seemingly at will conjured memories of Jackson-Davis.
Just a week ago, Ware played a starkly different game. On Nov. 19 against the University of Connecticut, Ware failed to consistently produce offensively and was frequently bested by Huskies’ sophomore center Donovan Clingan on the glass.
“I thought in New York, in the UConn game, he didn’t play hard enough,” Woodson said. “I’m not saying that’s the reason why we lost but he just didn’t play hard enough to me.”
Sunday night, Ware played the most complete game of his college career. His effort was constant, his shooting stroke was crisp and his intensity was magnified.
Ware rarely displays much emotion, but there were a few instances where he bellowed and pumped his fists. The scoring showed that Ware can thrive as the Hoosiers’ go-to offensive option.
And his will to make tough plays through contact may have cemented the idea that he’s no longer the player he was at Oregon.
“Tonight, he played really hard,” Woodson said. “It’s kind of nice to see him respond.”