MANHATTAN, Kans. -- There was a class observing Kansas State's practice last Tuesday, and so, for the sake of decorum, coach Frank Martin spared junior forward Curtis Kelly of what might have been an epic reaming, instead pulling him aside afterward and informing him in hushed-but-serious tones, that the effort he'd just put forth was unacceptable. "For a guy as good as you, to have only one rebound" -- a long board that fell into his hands -- "and one basket in two hours and 45 minutes" Martin said to the 6-foot-9 transfer from UConn, "should let you know that you had no interest in practicing today."
Watching Kelly's performance made me worried about the Wildcats, who finished fourth in the Big 12 last season and were spurned on Selection Sunday despite having a 22-12 record. Was this really the guy who was supposed to get them over the hump by solving their frontcourt scoring problems, the former five-star recruit who was supposed to be reviving his career after two tumultuous years at UConn? It didn't seem likely.
Damning someone on the basis of one practice is unfair, though, and Martin -- who's not in the business of defending players who don't deserve defending -- walked over afterward to provide some context. I had apparently seen their worst workout of the young season. "Curtis was awful today," he said, "but he had been playing like a pro before this. On his good days, he blocks shots, he plays with a lot of energy, and he's extremely skilled with his back to the basket offensively."
That should be a relief to K-State fans, because for this team to be good -- and they really are an intriguing dark horse in the Big 12 -- Kelly must become a third, quality scoring option alongside senior guard Denis Clemente (15.0 points per game in '08-09) and junior Jacob Pullen (13.9), who form one of the nation's most underrated backcourt duos. I sat with Clemente and Pullen before practice as they detailed their frustrations from last season: Defenses ignored the post, which was manned by offensively challenged role players Darren Kent and Luis Colon, and smothered the two guards with heavily extended defenses, ball-screen traps, and even triangle-and-twos. They're overjoyed to have what Martin calls a "pressure release" on the interior.
"We have a legitimate threat down there now," Pullen says. "If a team tries to trap us and we throw Curt the ball, he can actually go score."
Kelly, to his credit, acknowledges that focus and effort issues were what doomed him at UConn in '06-07 and '07-08. Coming out of Rice High in the Bronx, he says, "I was a young fool, and I didn't adjust to college quick enough. The combination of me not working hard, and me not being able to handle coach Calhoun mentally -- he's a great coach, but he's tough to play for because he can really get into you -- just ate away at my career."
As a freshman and sophomore, he was buried on the Huskies' front line behind Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, and Kelly wondered if Calhoun's image of him might forever be as a role player. "I didn't really want to wait to see if that would change," Kelly says. "Like this year, [senior] Gavin Edwards is probably going to be their starting four-man, and who knows -- that might have been me if I'd stayed. But I didn't want to take that risk."
After he dislocated his elbow against Villanova on Feb. 23, and felt that too there wasn't much interest in when he was coming back -- "when I didn't feel that love, that was the most depressing time of my life," he says -- he opted to transfer. His criteria were to find a coach who wasn't in the Hall of Fame, and school that was still in building mode. Martin and K-State fit. "If you work hard," Martin told him on his visit, "I promise I'll get you somewhere."
Where Kelly and the Wildcats go depends on what version of him they get: the lackadaisical one I saw on Tuesday, or the energetic one Martin's seen in most other practices. He really is their only scoring option inside; Colon is too limited, Samuels is more of a wing player, and four-star 6-9 freshman Wally Judge, the team's best NBA prospect, still lacks a legitimate post move. How much will it matter to Kelly that, for the first time in his college life, a team is counting on him?
Heart and Soul: K-State has a power-sharing agreement between point guards Clemente and Pullen, whom Martin says have both earned the right to speak their minds -- and lay into freshmen who slack off, if necessary. Clemente and Pullen are so far ahead of everyone else on the roster that they must be split up at all times in scrimmage situations ("Otherwise," Pullen says, "it just wouldn't be fair"), and in games, the 'Cats are better when they're both clicking: They were 12-4 last season when each point guard scored in double-figures, and 10-8 in games they didn't.
If forced to choose one heart-and-soul guy, though, I'd go with Clemente, who's older (a fifth-year senior, whereas Pullen is a true junior) as well as more fiery and demonstrative. Plus, Clemente's speed is the key to the Wildcats capitalizing on their athletic advantage over much of the Big 12 -- they're most dangerous when he's pushing the ball upcourt at a breakneck pace.
Most Improved: Samuels. There's been very little buzz about Samuels coming into the season; everything I read about the 'Cats focused on either the Clemente-Pullen duo, Kelly or freshmen Judge and Rodney McGruder. After seeing Tuesday's practice, I have the feeling that the 6-7 Samuels is on the verge of a breakthrough -- and not just because he was responsible for the most entertaining moment of my trip through the Sunflower State, posterizing McGruder on a breakaway dunk that, had it happened while cameras were rolling in a game, might have surpassed Clemente's off-the-scoreboard shot for hits on YouTube. Martin says Samuels has significantly improved from a redshirt freshman year when he averaged 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 20.5 minutes, and he plans on moving him mostly to small forward, a more natural position. He attempted just seven threes all of last season, making one, but looks like he's developed enough of a long-range shot to make an impact on the perimeter.
X Factor: Kelly. As stated above, they need him to be a solid scorer if they're going to surpass their preseason slotting as the fourth-best team in the Big 12. Judge is capable of producing highlights -- he might be one of the country's best dunkers -- but he's at least a season (and 15-20 pounds of muscle) away from stardom.
Glue Guy: Colon. The 6-10 Puerto Rican is a punisher/enforcer brand of glue guy, on a team that otherwise doesn't have much interior toughness. "All he knows," Martin says, "is brute force." Last Tuesday was only Colon's third practice back after breaking his left hand, and despite wearing a cast that severely limited his shooting ability, he had more impact on the interior than any other big man, dishing out pain to Kelly et al while grabbing most of the available rebounds. Colon isn't much of a scorer (he averaged 4.4 points last season and shot just 46 percent from the line), but he's invaluable to them as a rebounder and defensive force.
Lost in the Shuffle: Freshmen point guards Nick Russell (Rivals.com's No. 21 point guard in the Class of '09) and Martavious Irving (a star from Kansas State alum's Mitch Richmond's old high school in Florida). K-State can't afford to play many non-garbage possessions this season with both Clemente and Pullen off the floor, so it'll be hard for their floor-generals-in-waiting to get many minutes. Glue-y senior Chris Merriweather, who defends and takes charges, and freshman two-guard Rodney McGruder, their second-biggest recruit, are more likely to see backcourt minutes off the bench.
Bottom Line: Pullen raised an interesting point with me about the Big 12's preseason pecking order. "I don't understand why Texas is in front of us," he says, "when we return way more people that provided for us than Texas does. They have James and Pittman, and Bradley coming in, but they lost Abrams, who took most of their shots."
Pullen is correct in pointing out that the Wildcats have the most seasoned backcourt of any of the upper-echelon teams in the Big 12. I just don't think pundits believe in the rest of their roster yet, and I'm still on the fence, too. If Kelly stays focused, and if Samuels has a breakthrough, and if Judge develops post moves by February, K-State could be a threat to make the NCAA tournament's second weekend. If the Wildcats have to rely on Clemente and Pullen too heavily for another season, they might still make the dance, but they won't have any staying power.