MANHATTAN — Kansas State's ongoing struggles have been hard on everyone associated with the program, but it's difficult to imagine this disappointing basketball season affecting anyone more than Curtis Kelly.
Too often, the senior forward has been unable to help his team.
He missed three games for disciplinary reasons, six for violating NCAA rules and, most recently, the second half of an embarrassing 24-point loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.
By now, the role of sideline observer is nothing new to him.
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"I deserved it," Kelly said of Saturday’s benching. "I didn't come out to play in the first half well enough. Me, having a role as a leader and as one of the players from last year who knows what to do in games, I didn't play the way I needed to. I don't want to say it was my punishment, but Frank felt he had to sit me out because of that. I can't disagree."
Kelly wishes that wasn't the case. He wishes K-State was winning games and contending for a conference championship. He wishes spending all that time on the bench inspired him to play at a higher level.
But heading into tonight’s game against Nebraska, his season has been plagued by inconsistency.
"I need to get my mental toughness back," Kelly said. "I'm having a hard time focusing."
For a while, it looked like he had everything figured out. Coming off his six-game suspension at the beginning of the Big 12 season, he briefly returned to the form he displayed last season while setting a K-State single-season record with 74 blocks, and averaging 15 points and 5.8 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament.
Kelly, a preseason all-conference selection, averaged 11 points and 7.5 rebounds over a four-game stretch. Against Texas A&M, he looked like a future pro and scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked six shots.
"People thought he was going to be a guaranteed double-double every night," senior guard Jacob Pullen said.
But just when it looked like Kelly had put his dark days behind him, he played 10 unproductive minutes against Kansas in the first half, scored no points and was not allowed to enter the game in the second half.
"He put himself in that situation," sophomore forward Jordan Henriquez-Roberts said. "Coach Martin didn't put him in that situation. He did. But at the same time, he knows he has to get on Coach Martin's good side. It's not good to be in the doghouse."
With the departures of Freddy Asprilla and Wally Judge, who made up K-State's starting frontcourt at the beginning of the season, Martin can no longer afford to use playing time as a motivational tool.
If K-State is to make a late-season run at the NCAA Tournament, it needs Kelly to play up to his preseason expectations.
"It's been hard to get him focused in on the moment," Martin said. "When he does, he plays well and helps us. When he doesn't, I think it's obvious that he doesn't play as well and we don't play as well as a team, either. He's a big part of who we are. We need him to be good."
Can a player who has struggled suddenly figure everything out like that?
"He did last year," Martin said. "He had moments the second half of the season where he played at a high, high, high level, and that's why we had a chance to be real good as a team."
Martin thinks Kelly was able to play that way, in part, because of the veteran leadership provided last season by seniors Denis Clemente and Luis Colon.
Pullen and Kelly were expected to step into those leadership roles this season. Though teammates say Kelly is one of the more vocal players on the roster, he has been unable to set a consistent example in practice.
"Talking, that's the way I lead," Kelly said. "Leading by my own actions, that's the hard part."
Hard or not, Kelly understands he needs to solve that dilemma quickly.
"Nothing is over yet," Kelly said. "We can still win. We've got a lot of chipping away to do, but we can still get it done. I'm going to do whatever I can to help."