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SPRINGFIELD, MO - No one would have blamed Kyle Weems if he had decided to leave Missouri State after last season.
Weems redshirted as a freshman, meaning that he finished his undergraduate degree this summer with a year of eligibility left in his back pocket. The new trend for high-major programs looking for a one-year stop gap is to recruit players like Weems. Thanks to an NCAA rule that allows a player to apply for a waiver to avoid sitting out a season if he transfers to a school to pursue a graduate degree that isn't offered at his previous school, Illinois found their point guard in Bradley's Sam Maniscalco and Michigan State found a shooting guard in Valparaiso's Brandon Wood.
The recruiters came after Weems as well.
"A lot of big time schools came -- Kansas, Kansas State, Oregon," Weems told me after Missouri State's 66-65 loss to Creighton on Wednesday night. "My cousin runs Nike Mo-Kan Elite, so obviously he knows a bunch of people. Cal even got in contact with my uncle Chris Williams who played at Stanford, and he's on the Golden State Warriors staff right now. No one ever contacted me directly, but they talked to my family and got in contact with my high school coach in Kansas."
Think about that for a second. Weems, who is the reigning Missouri Valley Player of the Year, is a Kansas native, growing up in Topeka. He was essentially given the opportunity to play basketball for Kansas or Kansas State without having to sit out a season. Fill out some paperwork, and he would be suiting up in the home locker room of Phog Allen Fieldhouse or the Octagon of Doom. That alone would probably be enough to convince most native Kansans to make a move.
And that's not even considering the amount of turnover on the Missouri State roster.
The Bears went, essentially, seven deep on a good day last season, with the starters logging the heavy majority of those minutes. But Weems was the only non-senior in the starting lineup, which, when combined with former head coach Cuonzo Martin's decision to take the Tennessee job, should give you an idea of just how little continuity there was going to be in the program.
Would you really blame someone for leaving that situation for a chance to play on a legitimate Final Four contender? If you were Kyle Weems, would you have passed on the opportunity to play on national TV every night to stay in the Valley, a conference where fans watch games on grainy streams from websites that more than likely helped inspire SOPA and PIPA?
Because that's precisely the decision Weems made. And the way he tells it, there was hardly any consideration.
"With everything I've been through here with the redshirt year and this being my third coach, I felt I owed it to myself and to my family to at least look at it," Weems said. "But it just felt like home here, and then when Coach Lusk got the job here, there was pretty much no doubt that I was going to stay."
Springfield isn't exactly smalltown America. The third-largest city in the state, Springfield is home to just under 160,000 people. Known as the Queen City of the Ozarks, Springfield has been called the birthplace of Route 66. And while it may pain Nat King Cole to hear it, Springfield's claim to fame may actually be that it hosted a shootout between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt back in 1865.
But Springfield is hardly an urban metropolis. The city is somewhat isolated, with national forests bordering to the east and the south and a whole lot of nothing on it's northern and western edges. We may as well call Springfield the "city that's three hours from everywhere", as it sits more or less smack in the middle of Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis and Tulsa.
That isolation fosters a sense of community, one that rabidly supports their Missouri State Bears. Its why their basketball team is able to pack the three-year old JQH Arena despite playing host to a team that's barely over .500 this season. And its also a major reason why Weems feels so comfortable in Springfield.
He's a star here, a big fish in a little pond. And that's perfectly fine with him.
"These fans, they're awesome here," Weems said. "You can be an athlete and be at Walmart and they treat you with the utmost respect and they treat you like you're a star. Its just an awesome thing to be a part of and it just felt right to stay."
"They just do a good job of welcoming their players. Regardless of whether you're from junior college or a redshirt. I've had the opportunity to be here for four and a half years now, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."
The mutual respect between Weems and the community at large is part of the reason that first-year head coach Paul Lusk never really felt the need to try and recruit his star senior to return for his final year of eligibility. He knew Weems wasn't going anywhere.
"You want all your guys to stay and certainly a kid of Kyle's caliber," Lusk said over the phone. "But I really was never that concerned about it. I just felt that this was the best situation for him. He's so well-respected here. And why go somewhere and not finish it out? He's had a lot of positive experiences in this place."
That's the kind of values that were instilled in him as a child.
Kim Weems, Kyle's mother, has worked for 35 years at the same office as a dental assistant. His father, Kevin, has spent almost the same amount of time working in the Topeka school district, surviving with a new job title despite recent layoffs.
"That's dedication," Weems told Yahoo! Sports back in July. "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."
These are the same parents that make the seven hour round trip drive from Topeka for the Missouri State home games, making it to work at 7:30 am the morning after seeing their only child play. Is it any wonder that their son would value loyalty above all else?
"The thing that I was always confident about is that he has great people around him," Lusk said. "His mom and dad are terrific people, he has great values. He's got a lot of substance."
"In the end we're very fortunate that he's here."
Starting over is never easy, and that is precisely what Missouri State had to do this season.
They lost more than 60% of their scoring. The four starters they lost played more than 60% of the available minutes last season. When you're playing in a league as balanced and competitive as the Valley, that's an overwhelming number to try and overcome.
"To lose four starters who played most of the minutes and are very, very good players," Lusk said. "Weems is the lone returning starter. We were picked in the bottom half of the league. A lot of people could have bailed out and said I'm not going through that. He stuck."
But it hasn't been easy. Missouri State is 11-9 on the season. After losing their rematch with Creighton, the Bears are now 4-4 in the league, a full three games behind Wichita State and Creighton. Barring a miracle finish to the season, Missouri State is going to have to leave Arch Madness victorious if they don't want their season to end in the NIT, CIT or CBI.
He's had to make an adjustment on the individual level as well. Its not exactly a secret that he was the league's best player a year ago, and in a conference as well-coached as the MVC is from top-to-bottom, you better believe that defensive schemes have been geared towards him each and every night he takes the floor.
"Each and every game I've gotten more attention," Weems said.
"I think that's been an adjustment for Kyle because of all the new faces and everyone trying to get everyone else figured out," Lusk said.
Neither Lusk nor Weems is using the new-look roster as a crutch, because the Bears are as competitive as they've ever been. Of their nine losses, only two -- to New Mexico and St. Mary's -- have been by double figures. They lost by five to Oral Roberts and Oklahoma State and took West Virginia to overtime. The three game losing streak they are on subsists of two one point losses and a game they dropped in overtime.
"We're 11-9 right now, but we're close. We've lost some heartbreakers here down the stretch," Lusk said.
That change and those losses have undoubtedly been difficult to deal with, but its no guarantee that he would have been any better off had he chosen to jump ship. At Kansas, the 6'7" Weems would be sharing a front court with Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson and the suddenly-dominant Jeff Withey. At Kansas State, he would be splitting time with Jordan Henriquez, Thomas Gibson and Jamar Samuels. He may have played more minutes at Cal or Oregon, but neither of those schools are guaranteed to be destined for the NCAA Tournament. A valid argument could be made that the Valley is a better conference as a whole than the Pac-12 as well.
"He can play anywhere," Lusk said. "But what's his role going to be? He's going to have to fit in and adjust and get acclimated to a new system and new friends."
"Sometimes the grass isn't always greener."
Kyle Weems is everything that is great about college basketball.
He's a star in a place outside of the bright lights of a major conference. He embraces the ideal of being a student-athlete, living as a member of the community and not as a rental deity spending one year feigning interest in an education as a launching point towards a professional career.
The seedy underbelly of the sport -- the agents, the runners, the Ricky Roe duffel bags stuffed with cold, hard booster cash -- can and has reached its tentacles into the mid-major ranks.
And for all the attention that Weems received during the offseason -- as Lusk put it "I think there were some things going on" -- his commitment to Missouri State never wavered.
"This is my second home," Weems said.
What does that say about the program Lusk inherited? What does it mean that a school is southwest Missouri that plays a long way from the bright lights of ESPN was able to retain the services of a player that was coveted by the big boys?
Nothing, according to Lusk.
"I think it says a lot about Kyle and him wanting to stay and wanting to finish his career here."
"He's just a good person."
Friday, January 20, 2012
This post is brought to you by the University Plaza Hotel in Springfield, MO.