Kel’el Ware has grown more than Indiana could have possibly imagined

  • 03/10/2024 10:25 pm in

Kel’el Ware didn’t have a motor. Or so they said.

When the 7-footer transferred to Indiana from Oregon last spring, many, even his former head coach, questioned his work ethic, will to win and effort. Nearly a year later, those questions were answered with resounding eye rolls. It’s a false narrative at this point; everyone knows that.

Ware’s sophomore season has been outstanding. He went from an afterthought in Oregon’s rotation last February to single-handedly winning the Hoosiers games a little over a year later.

“Before he got here I overheard some questions about his motor,” Xavier Johnson said. “I think that was something that was well-known about him. Coach Woodson and the team has stayed on him about it, and I think that’s the reason he’s averaging what he is averaging right now, and he’s doing a hell of a job. I think he is going to continue to be that type of guy and continue to play like that.”

On senior day against Michigan State, Ware again proved the “motor” narrative false. His career-high 28 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in 37 minutes propelled Indiana to its fourth straight win — a 65-64 nail-biter against the Spartans. Ware has scored over 25 points three times in that streak and has had double-digit rebounds in each. His 13 made field goals on Sunday were a career-high as well.

Ware’s door to another career night opened when Trey Galloway left the game with 12 minutes to go in the first half with an injury. Without its senior guard, Indiana’s offense became stagnant and lacked flow.

“Trey is definitely a big part of our offense, with him just being able to get downhill, throw the lob, or get to his flow offensively,” Ware said postgame. “With him going down, I just felt like not even just me, but everybody on the team had to step up, if we wanted to get the win.”

The Spartans took the lead in the second half, and up seven, it appeared like they may not look back. They did, and they were looking right into Ware’s eyes. The North Little Rock, Arkansas, native was Indiana’s only reliable option in the second half.

Ware repeatedly gave Michigan State’s Mady Sissoko, Xavier Booker, Carson Cooper and Jaxon Kohler the work on the block. It was safe to say Tom Izzo had his hands full — trying his luck with all four of his bigs. “Big fella,” as Mike Woodson calls him, scored 19 in the second half, including the game-winning free throw with 17 seconds remaining. Before that make, he had missed five foul shots in a row.

“Don’t think, shoot. That was all I was thinking. Just don’t think, shoot,” Ware said of his final free throw attempt.

Ware, still self-aware enough to point out his mishaps on a career night, was critical of himself for trying to do too much in the first half. Still, Ware finished the first half with nine solid points and six boards. At one point, he threw a touchdown pass up the floor to Malik Reneau from Michigan State’s foul line. He cupped his hands around his eyes as if wearing goggles to point out his vision.

His maturation took time to come. Ware has gained 32 pounds since the start of his freshman season, and he has overcome injuries. He had a lingering ankle issue in January and during moments in games against Iowa and Ohio State, he limped around the floor. Mike Woodson also criticized Ware’s toughness in losses to Purdue and Kansas. But with everything said about him this winter, he’s responded.

“After that first month, he’s been a totally different player,” Woodson said. “I got to give tribute to our coaching staff and how they work. We pushed him, his teammates believe in him and I believe in him. He’s been phenomenal; been playing unbelievable.”

Perhaps what’s most likely to put a smile on the faces of fans is his emotion. Ware, whose right shoulder is tattooed with “Humble Beast,” flexed and yelled after an and-one bucket with less than two minutes to go. After his lone 3-point make in the first half, he clapped his hands together and mean-mugged his way back on defense. These flashes of intensity and fire weren’t happening in game one, but they are in game 31.

Ware’s legacy at Indiana may be short-lived. He is currently playing his way into being a first-round NBA draft choice, but his mark on this era of Hoosiers basketball has been memorable. He’s given his all, every second of every possession. That’s all anyone can really ask for.

As big fella left the Assembly Hall floor and went into the tunnel, for potentially the last time, Hoosiers fans put their arms out for high-fives and gave him another (well-deserved) round of applause. He may just ride off into the sunset, forever changed by Indiana.

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