KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Curtis Kelly was late for the bus. And when Kansas State coach Frank Martin drives the bus, he waits for no one.
There's a schedule to keep. This bus moves when it's supposed to move. There is no stopping the bus.
But Kelly, K-State's 6-foot-9 senior who sat out the first three basketball games because — well, because Martin told him to — was lucky to finally hop on the bus Monday night at the Sprint Center during K-State's impressive 81-62 win over Gonzaga in the semifinals of the CBE Classic.
He entered the game with 16:21 remaining in the first half to the pleasure of the Wildcat fans who filled a good portion of the arena. Then he promptly committed a turnover and a foul. When he went back to the bench less than three minutes later, he was berated by Martin.
It was undoubtedly the most pleasurable tongue-lashing of Kelly's life.
He kept his seat on the bus; Martin didn't kick him to the curb. The back of the bus, maybe; Kelly still doesn't have his legs under him and looked like he was trying way too hard to make an impact.
As Martin preaches, Kansas State basketball is bigger than any one player or coach. Kelly was one of the key reasons why KSU advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last season. He's a left-handed scorer with an unorthodox style, a rebounder and a tough interior defender thanks to arms that can stretch across a basketball floor.
But K-State has already beaten a ranked Virginia Tech team without him and it was a lot of Wildcats not named Kelly who had the biggest hand in Monday's victory, which sets up one of the biggest regular-season games in K-State history tonight against Duke in the tournament's championship game.
That would be defending national champion and No. 1 Duke, which held off Marquette in Monday's other semifinal. That would be the Duke that all of those influential East Coast writers love. A lot of those guys were covering Monday's semifinals and I get the feeling most have a wait-and-see attitude about K-State.
Well, something tells me the wait will be over tonight and everybody will be impressed with what they see.
K-State has it.
With a few exceptions — I thought Martin was going to explode after a quick and uncontested Gonzaga transition basket late in the first half — the Wildcats do everything well except perhaps shoot free throws.
They make every game a war and built a 17-point lead in the first half.
Of course, Gonzaga has battle scars from years of winning West Coast Conference championships and advancing deep into NCAA Tournaments. The Bulldogs weren't going away and they managed to cut into K-State's lead, getting as close as six points early in the second half before the Cats stretched it out again.
With its wave of players and full-throttle approach, K-State wears teams down. Over the course of 40 minutes, it's difficult to match the Wildcats' RPM.
K-State isn't going to always be as exciting offensively as it was last year, when Denis Clemente was streaking up and down the floor making acrobatic shots and death-defying passes. Even in a 49-point first half, there were rough patches. They were hidden by the Wildcats' 9-of-15 three-point shooting, nine more three-pointers than Gonzaga made.
Defensively, I'm convinced K-State's goal is to emotionally unhinge its opponent, to leave them walking around like the zombie characters in "The Walking Dead."
It's not pretty. What K-State does to its opponents defensively can even be unwatchable. But usually the constant K-State pressure wins out. Even an elite team like Gonzaga, with an elite coach like Mark Few, at times looked dazed by everything and everyone the Wildcats threw at them.
Gonzaga isn't Duke, though. There's only one Duke and the Blue Devils are one of those rare teams equipped to persevere through whatever K-State throws their way.
To beat Duke will require more than just an all-out assault. K-State will have to limit its mistakes, which isn't easy when you're juggling rings of fire.
The Blue Devils (4-0) played well in beating Marquette, but did allow 77 points in its five-point win over Marquette. There is no doubt K-State can play with Duke and if you know Martin, you know he's not going to change anything about the Wildcats' approach.
One of the best things about K-State is that it takes the floor for every game believing it's the best team out there and it doesn't matter whether the opponent is Presbyterian or Duke.
As for Kelly?
He finally scored on a three-point play with 13:57 to play. The K-State fans were jubilant when he came out of the game a few minutes later.
Make no mistake, this bus is rolling.