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It’s rare for a pregame or postgame press conference to pass without coach John Calipari finding a way to praise sophomore Lance Ware.
Calipari might be talking about Oscar Tshiebwe, TyTy Washington or even Keion Brooks and suddenly praise the effort of Ware for the way he rebounds and plays defense in his limited role.
“It is big when your coach says stuff like that,” Ware said. “Obviously, it gives me way more confidence. It makes me want to work even harder. I want to get better every single game and help my team win.
“When I come in a game, I try to bring a spark. I do whatever I can whether it is for five minutes or 10 minutes. I just want to help my team.”
The 6-9 Ware backs up Tshiebwe, the best rebounder to play at Kentucky in the last 60 years and perhaps the leading candidate for national player of the year. He understands why his minutes are limited playing behind Tshiebwe but has not let that stop him from getting better.
“Going against him every day is a blessing,” Ware said. “The physicality part, trying to rebound against him, boxing him out. You will not often find a player built like him who can do the things he can. It is a challenge. But as the season has gone on I understood what I had to do for this team. Just like anybody else, when you go in you want to play our best and not have any drop-off as a team when you come into the game.”
Ware averaged about 12 minutes per game last year as a true freshman when UK went 9-16. This year with Tshiebwe averaging 16 points and a nation-best 15 rebounds per game, Ware is averaging only about seven minutes, 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game.
Tshiebwe is leading the country in defensive rebound rate, but UK doesn’t drop off when he’s not in the game. According to Sean Vinsel of HoopsInsight.com, UK has been rebounding 80 percent of opponent’s misses when Tshiebwe is in the game but is also rebounding at an 80 percent rate with Ware on the court.
Calipari has no doubt that Ware is a better player this season and an important player for UK because of the relief he provides for Tshiebwe.
“He’s gotten so much better, so much more confident. More competent, which is why he’s more confident,” Calipari said.
Calipari said it’s not easy for players to buy into being a role player even though the UK coach estimated 95 percent of NBA players are role players. Calipari’s message is to be a “star at your role” and Ware is doing that for the No. 5 Cats. Assistant coach Chin Coleman says no one is “more ready when his number is called” than Ware or a bigger cheerleader for his teammates.
That cheerleading continued at Alabama when freshman Daimion Collins got a rare chance to play and had 10 points and six rebounds in nine minutes. Calipari said after the game no one was happier for Collins than Ware and Ware also congratulated Collins on social media. However, don’t doubt that against bigger, more physical teams that UK still needs Ware to produce as Tshiebwe’s backup.
Ware credits Tshiebwe in an unexpected way for the influence he’s had on him off the court with his personality.
“He is always in good spirits. It’s big to come in every day and him be happy. That stuff helps everybody, including me,” Ware said.
What also helps Ware is that he is more than content being a four-year player. He didn’t come to UK with expectations of being a one-and-done player.
“Let me tell you what’s helping Lance. He’s now become one of the guys living in the gym. He’s one of those guys now. He’s building his own confidence,” Calipari said.
“It’s not how much I play him. When he gets minutes, he’s confident he’s going to play well. He’s out there playing well: Rebounding, he fights, he talks, he’s smart. He’s one of the smartest basketball players we have.”