Kansas State’s Kelly worth the wait
SALT LAKE CITY – The same scene repeated itself whenever Kansas State’s basketball players visited a fast-food restaurant last season.
Curtis Kelly’s teammates would buy him a grilled chicken sandwich before he could place his own order. They refused to allow this overweight Connecticut transfer to get even further out of shape.
Kelly wasn’t even eligible to play last season because of NCAA transfer rules, but his new teammates didn’t want to see this former five-star prospect eat his way out of a potential pro career.
“He used to be kind of mad about that,” sophomore forward Jamar Samuels said. “We’d always go through the drive through. We never went inside. We knew if we went inside, he’d try to get his own meal.”
Their efforts paid off.
Kelly has dropped well over 30 pounds since arriving on campus for the 2008-09 school year. As he streamlined his frame, he expanded his game.
The 6-foot-8 junior forward is a major reason why Kansas State stands just one win away from its first Final Four appearance since 1964. The second-seeded Wildcats (29-7) face No. 5 seed Butler (31-4) in the West Regional championship Saturday at the EnergySolutions Arena.
“I was just tired of sitting on the bench and failing,” Kelly said. “You get tired of doing things the wrong way. It pushes you to want to do it the right way.”
Kelly is coming off perhaps the most overlooked individual performance of this year’s tournament. The dueling backcourts overshadowed the fact that Kelly played the best game of his career Thursday in Kansas State’s 101-96 double-overtime victory over Xavier.
When Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Xavier’s Jordan Crawford weren’t trading long-range shots, Kelly was keeping the Wildcats in the game with his performance in the paint.
He finished with 21 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and four assists. His production was overwhelming – and overdue.
Kelly was supposed to deliver those kinds of games on a regular basis when he enrolled at Connecticut as the No. 27 overall prospect in the 2006 recruiting class.
“He didn’t always make the best decisions and wasn’t always physical enough, but you got a feel that if Curtis got stronger and got his head on straight, he had all the tools to be a very good player,” said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “He was never scared. He always competed. I think he just had to mature a little bit physically and emotionally, and that’s what he’s done.”
He did it only after a couple of trying seasons.
Kelly compiled 2.7 points and played 9.3 minutes per game his freshman year at UConn. His averages slipped to 2 points and 7.6 minutes as a sophomore, and he sat out the last six games of the year with a dislocated left elbow. He spent more time in coach Jim Calhoun’s doghouse than on the floor.
“Back then, I was a stubborn kid,” Kelly said. “I was young. I was just trying to feed off my talent instead of putting the work in.”
The kid from the Bronx then decided to move to Manhattan.
Kelly was leaving behind a program that had won national titles in 1999 and 2004 for a team that hadn’t advanced as far as the Sweet 16 since 1988. He also was leaving behind the familiarity of the Northeast for a state he hadn’t even visited until his recruiting trip.
Why Kansas State?
Kelly said he wanted to try someplace completely different from his previous stop. Instead of playing for a consistent Final Four contender, he wanted to help build something. After struggling to develop his game under a Hall of Famer at Connecticut, Kelly believed he might work better with a younger, less proven coach.
Kansas State coach Frank Martin was willing to take a chance on this talented underachiever.
“The reason I offered him a scholarship was because during the recruiting process, not once did he blame UConn for everything,” Martin said. “He took all the responsibility. He fully understood the reason he did not succeed at UConn was because of his actions, not because of anything else. That told me something about him and the kind of kid that he is.”
He still had a long way to go.
Kelly admits to weighing 265 pounds when he arrived at Kansas State. His teammates insist he was closer to 270. He clearly wasn’t fit enough to thrive in Martin’s uptempo system.
“Late-night snacks are a kid’s favorite thing, no matter how old they are,” Kelly said. “If you’re 25 or under, you’re going to get a late-night snack a couple of times. I definitely got my share. But I slowed down.”
Kelly endured a difficult first year at Kansas State. Since he couldn’t play last season, Kelly devoted his energy to changing his diet and working himself into shape while his former team advanced to the Final Four.
His new work ethic eventually won over his new teammates.
“He didn’t mope,” junior guard Jacob Pullen said. “He didn’t say, ‘We didn’t do this at UConn,’ or try to rebel against it. He got along with the team. He pushed himself to get in shape.”
The results are obvious.
Although Kansas State’s roster lists him at 239 pounds, Kelly said he has slimmed down to 229. The fact that he has increased his stamina is indisputable. Instead of tiring out late in Thursday night’s marathon, Kelly scored 10 points in the two overtime sessions.
“He still drives me nuts, but he’s a big-time kid,” Martin said. “Like I tell him all the time, I say, ‘Curt, I’m just not going to accept you not being good as you can be. Other people might quit on you. I’m not quitting on you. I’ll fight you to the end.’ He embraces that. He’s a kid that really wants to get better.”
Martin’s tough-love approach is just what Kelly needed.
Kelly has no hard feelings toward his former school. He still roots for Connecticut and remains friends with his ex-teammates. But he acknowledges that he responds better to Martin’s instruction than he ever did to Calhoun’s approach.
“The main difference between Calhoun and Frank is Frank believed in me more,” Kelly said. “He put more time in. I think Calhoun kind of ignored me a little bit. Frank didn’t do that. Frank said, ‘I believe in you. I’m going to keep pushing you, no matter what.’ ”
Kelly remains a work in progress.
Although he leads the Wildcats in rebounding (6.3) and ranks third on the team in scoring (11.4), Kelly continues to struggle with consistency. He headed into the NCAA tournament having scored in double figures just once in his last five games. But he has turned up his game in the postseason and already has answered the skeptics who wrote him off after his struggles at Connecticut.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought I was going to come here and do the things I’m doing here now,” Kelly said. “It’s a big change. I progressed a lot. But I’m still down on myself a lot because I still feel like there’s more that I can do.”
His quest to get better is apparent from his diet.
Kelly doesn’t need reminders from teammates anymore about avoiding the wrong foods. Even if Kansas State wins the national title, Kelly won’t celebrate with an unchaperoned visit to a fast-food restaurant.
“I’ve started to build a habit that I don’t eat a lot,” Kelly said. “If I do eat a lot, it will be a place like Applebee’s or a place that serves good food, not the Burger Kings or McDonald’s.”
Kelly now has an appetite for championships – not cheeseburgers.