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Indiana basketball had questions about its front court. With ‘buddy ball’ on full display, those questions have been answered



Indiana basketball
The Indiana basketball program seems to have its go-to options offensively with the 'buddy ball' system in its front court. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — One of the biggest questions for the Indiana basketball program heading into this season was how the front court would look without veteran and productive bigs Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis.

That duo created ‘buddy ball’ and allowed the offense to run through them on any given possession.

Through three games this season, the new duo of Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware have answered that question. The offense will run through them.

Their production and chemistry continued in Thursday night’s 89-80 win over Wright State.

“They’re playing well together,” Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “When you talk about going against teams that got big bodies, they’ve got to play that way. We call it buddy ball. They’re really connecting in terms of making plays for one another, high-low plays. They both are extremely good passers with the basketball. They give passes. If you’re open they’ll give you the ball. You’ve just got to do something with it when you get it.”

Kel’el Ware poured in 22 points on 9-of-11 from the field with 12 rebounds and two blocks. Malik Reneau had 16 points on 8-of-13 shooting with eight rebounds and five assists.

That pair combined for eight of the 13 made field goals in the second half and 17 of the 33 made field goals for the game.

They accounted for 42.9 percent of IU’s points, 54 percent of the rebounds, 35 percent of assists and 51.5 percent of the team’s field goals.

“The term buddy ball is definitely what me and Kel’el been looking at, especially on the perimeter,” Reneau said postgame. “I’m looking to get top down, not post. I’m looking for him, get some early seals, early post-ups. Get their big men in foul trouble so we can have an easier game plan there, secondary unit and stuff like that. But yeah, buddy ball is huge for us.”

Their play was highlighted by scoring 12 of the final 22 points over the final seven minutes.

But, their production was not just on Thursday — it’s been all season long.

More: Indiana basketball survives another close one but rebounding struggles continue

Ware is averaging 18.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.0 blocks per game.

“He’s been playing extremely well,” Woodson said. “He started out a little slow when we first got together, and he’s picked it up, and he’s doing all the things that we’ve asked him to do, and we’ve just got to take it a game at a time and keep him in a good place where he’s doing the things that he’s been doing for us.”

He has put up back-t0-back career games. In his last two games, he has totaled 42 points on 18-of-22 shooting with 22 rebounds in 63 minutes.

Reneau is posting 15.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assist and 1.3 blocks per game. He has the best two-game span of his career with 10 assists over his last two outings.

“It’s just realizing what the defense is giving us,” Reneau said. “Kel’el pointed out to me that when the double-team comes, just they got us coming down to drop down. He’s not really helping down too much so you can just throw it over the top, and I finally got a glimpse of it and was able to make that pass over the top. Then the lob pass, just looking back I seen Kel’el running, so I knew my first instinct in my head was I’m not laying this ball up, this is going up top and making a highlight play. I wanted to throw it up and get the crowd hyped and stuff like that, so I made that work.”

There have been questions, however, about their production against high-major opponents.

Indiana faces its first big test on Sunday, facing off against UConn in Madison Square Garden. Then it’ll play either Texas or Louisville in the second matchup on Monday.

Ware faced UConn last year — posting his season-high of 18 points and nine rebounds. But, he’s not focused on that performance — he’s looking ahead to a new challenge. He’ll be ready, but the rest of the Indiana basketball program needs to be as well.

“I’m looking forward to playing their team. They’re a tough team and we’re just going to have to go and compete,” Ware said. “I’m with a new team now, they have a new team, so we just have to compete.

“I would say I’m more in a groove now with Coach Woodson giving me that role where he trusts me enough to just go make the play and attack the basket, score, even throw it out to my teammates and just play smart on the court. As long as I’m playing hard and just giving them that, then we should be good.”

SEE ALSO: Defending 3s. Making 3s. The biggest thorn in the side of Indiana basketball shows up again despite win

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Alec Lasley is the owner of Hoosier Illustrated, a comprehensive site covering news, updates and recruiting for Indiana University athletics. Alec has covered Indiana for six years and is a credentialed media member. He has previously worked for both Rivals and 247Sports.