Thu Jul 28 12:54pm EDT
At a time when disenchanted players transfer in droves each offseason and coaches seldom think twice about leaving their current gig for one in a higher pay grade, a Missouri State player is proving loyalty in college basketball isn't quite dead.
Reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Kyle Weems is on pace to earn his undergraduate degree at Missouri State before the start of fall classes, so the fifth-year senior is eligible to transfer to anywhere without sitting out a year.
When ex-Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin left for Tennessee in late March, a handful of higher-profile programs including Kansas, Kansas State, Oregon and Cal expressed interest in Weems via his family or his high school coach. The 6-foot-6 forward spurned them all, opting instead to stay at Missouri State because he wants to lead the Bears to their first NCAA tournament bid in 12 years and he couldn't imagine turning his back on his fans or his teammates.
"Deep down in my heart I knew I wanted to be an MSU Bear for my whole career," Weems said. "This has been my home for the past four years. I want to leave a legacy here. I want people to remember me for always having a smile on my face, for playing hard and for being a winner. I think I've done a pretty good job of that, but I felt like there's more work to do, especially an NCAA tournament bid. That's why I wasn't ready to leave."
Weems' decision to remain at Missouri State was monumental for a program that won the Missouri Valley regular-season title a year ago but likely would have entered rebuilding mode had he left. Three double-digit scorers off last year's team have graduated, meaning the Bears' postseason hopes may depend on Weems taking on even more responsibility than he did a year ago when he played 31 minutes per game and averaged 16.0 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Why would Weems accept that daunting challenge rather than giving in to the allure of a bigger program with more realistic hopes of a deep NCAA tournament run? The Topeka, Kan., native says it's because his parents instilled in him the importance of loyalty and hard work.
For the past 35 years, Kim Weems has driven the same route five days a week to get to the office where she works as a dental assistant. And Kevin Weems has worked almost as long for a Topeka school district, even accepting a new role there after he was the victim of recent layoffs.
"That's dedication," Weems said. "If they can work a 9-to-5 job like that, then I feel I can be loyal to a university, which has done nothing but great things for me."
In order to keep Missouri State in contention for another league title and an NCAA tournament berth, Weems is putting in some hard work of his own.
In addition to improving his off-the-dribble moves so he can more consistently get to the rim, Weems is also hoping to shed some weight off his 232-pound frame by conditioning more and eating more lean poultry and fish. It's critically important Weems is successful because he may even have to play more minutes next season since the Bears graduated four of last year's six top players.
"I definitely think there was times last year that I felt fatigued late in games," Weems said. "We played a lot of minutes. We played pretty much six guys, maybe seven or eight at most. That's not an excuse, but it does take a toll on your body and mind. I think I'm definitely there with the mind and I'm making that next step with my body."
What motivates Weems whenever he's tired of working out or he wants a late-night snack is the memory of a horrific 3-for-16 shooting night in the Missouri Valley Conference title game against Indiana State last March.
The heavily favored Bears lost that game by four points and settled for an NIT bid. Wichita State, Indiana State and Creighton will begin next season as the Missouri Valley favorites, but if new coach Paul Lusk can get Missouri State back to the conference title game, Weems is confident the ending will be different this time.
"I don't think we've been this athletic in my four years here and I don't think I've been around a group of guys who are this competitive," Weems said. "That's something that I'm looking forward to next season."