Only three games into his college career, Kel’el Ware is already a critical component for Oregon.
A former five-star recruit, Ware is averaging 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds off the bench for the Ducks. But most vital is Ware’s length and shooting ability, which allows Dana Altman to play him alongside fellow 7-footers Nate Bittle and N’Faly Dante as Oregon leans on a bigger lineup while guards Jermaine Couisnard and Brennan Rigsby recover from injuries.
“I wanted to bring the freshman along slowly, but now we’ve got a different scenario and he’s going to have to guard on the perimeter a little bit,” Altman said. “Nate’s going to have to guard more on the perimeter. That’s a tough adjustment for guys that are used to going and standing in the paint.”
Against No. 3 Houston (4-0) tonight (6:30 p.m., ESPN) at Matthew Knight Arena, Ware is going to be asked to play well beyond his years.
Ware is coming off 16 points and seven rebounds against Montana State, which is by no means a basis of comparison in competition to Houston. He made a pair of three-pointers in that game though and his range will be needed for Oregon to open the lane up against Houston, which Altman expects to double team Dante.
“You got to play with energy,” Ware said, echoing one of Altman’s points of emphasis. “Play like you want to be there and play hard. I feel like if I do that and bring the motor every game I feel like we’re going to be good.”
The Cougars are shooting 49.4% from the field thanks in large part to a plus-10 rebounding margin and Ware is going to have to be a force on the glass and be able to get out to guard Houston’s shooters.
“A lot of that offensive rebound put-backs,” Altman said. “It puts a lot of pressure on your defense. You’re going to have to limit them one shot, try to make that shot contested. The big problem is going and getting it.”
Will Richardson (9.0 points, 4.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds) hasn’t gotten into his shooting stroke early on and isn’t attacking the rim yet due in part to Oregon playing with more length on the court.
Ware and Bittle are each shooting better from behind the arc than Richardson so far this season, a short-term anomaly to be sure, but also indicative of how they can all benefit and aid each other’s games once Oregon sorts things out offensively.
“I think the floor can get spread if those guys can shoot a little better,” Altman said. “With the two guys in there, a lot of the action that we have, it is going to tighten things up a lot.”
Oregon will have to try to contain Houston’s Marcus Sasser (17.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists), who takes half of his shots from behind the arc and draws contact on the way to the hoop.
“He’s a natural scorer,” Altman said. “He’s got a basketball savvy about him. He’s aggressive offensively. He’s got a lot of experience. He’s a tough matchup, he’s one of the best guards we’ll go against all year.
“It’s a great opportunity for us. This is as good a team, maybe better than anybody we’ll play. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”