Kyle Keller — who helped recruit all five of Oklahoma State University’s basketball starters — roots for the Cowboys to win just about every game.
“Every one except Saturday, and if we play them in the conference tournament,” said OSU grad/former Cowboy assistant coach Keller, who is in his first year on Bill Self’s Kansas University staff.
“I hope they don’t score a point on Saturday,” Keller added, making it clear his loyalties are with the Jayhawks, not the ’Pokes, in today’s 2:30 p.m. tipoff in Allen Fieldhouse.
Keller worked the past nine years on the OSU coaching staffs of both Eddie Sutton and his son, Sean. Thus, he knows everything there is to know about Cowboy starters Byron Eaton, Obi Muonelo, James Anderson, Terrel Harris and Marshall Moses.
“It’s weird to play against them for the simple fact I’ve known some of those kids since they were 14, 15 years old,” said Keller, who joined KU’s program as video coordinator last August. “I’ve yelled at them, pushed them, hugged them. I think they are really outstanding young men. That’s what makes playing them so difficult.”
He knows full well the Cowboys (14-7, 3-4) are capable of giving the Jayhawks (18-4, 7-0) a battle today. Eaton scored 26 points and Muonelo 12 in OSU’s 61-60 victory over the Jayhawks last Feb. 23 at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.
It was KU’s last loss of the national title season and the last big win for Sean Sutton, who was fired and replaced by Travis Ford at the conclusion of the ’07-08 campaign.
“As a player, you always think you can win the game. I think it took our guys a long time to realize they could win that game,” Keller said of the Pokes.
“Obviously, KU ... it wasn’t their A-game. We played, I thought, one of our best games. Byron controlled the game. He dominated each possession. He went to the line about 20 times (making 16 of 18 free throws). Each possession was a grinder.
“I know sitting on the other sideline it was a lot of fun to be part of it and a thrill for those kids. None of those kids have been part of an NCAA Tournament. When they came in, we’d gone to six in a row. The seniors — Byron and Terrel — they were recruited on, ‘We go to the tournament every year. We make deep runs. We never lose in the first round,’ and they’ve never gone. I hope they get the opportunity this year.”
The Cowboys today likely will go as far as the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Eaton takes them.
“He’s like Sherron (Collins), his weight going back and forth,” Keller said. “He got big his senior year of high school through football. It’s been a struggle for him ever since. His weight has fluctuated up and down. Last year, when he was playing so well, he got down to 210. Watching him on tape, I’m sure he’s about that weight now.”
Eaton averages 14.6 points a game. He has dished 122 assists against 73 turnovers. Collins checks in at 18.2 ppg with 112 assists against 73 turnovers. OSU’s Anderson and Muonelo average 16.8 and 14.7 ppg respectively, while Harris contributes 14.6 ppg.
“Watching them on TV, we obviously have to take away their three-point shots. They are averaging 10 threes (made) a game (208 of 520 overall),” Keller said. “We’ve got to be able to handle their presses and changing defenses. We can’t hand it to them so they get a bunch of transition points. They’re harder to guard than Baylor. They are a tough match-up for us.”
And an emotional one for Keller. He, KU coach Self and KU administrative assistant Barry Hinson all love OSU, their alma mater.
“I met my wife (Chaunsea) there. My child (Kenzie) was born there,” Keller said. “I have unbelievable memories of being in Stillwater. We coached in a Final Four there, won conference championships, coached numerous NBA guys.
“But this is basketball heaven here. If I ever could land on my feet, I feel I have golden shoes on being here. This is a special place. There’s no place like it. This should be the model for college basketball.
“Everybody here is so kind. They’ve embraced me with open arms,” he added.
Keller, 41, will never forget the kindness shown by Bill and Cindy Self back in 1990, right after Keller’s graduation at Okie State.
“I had my apartment demolished by a tornado. I didn’t have a job yet and didn’t know where to go,” Keller said. “Coach and Cindy were kind enough to open up their home, allow me to sleep on their couch. He was just like he is today — selfless, a special man. I feel fortunate I’ve gotten to know him and continue to get to know him.”
Self remembers the scenario.
“He moved in with us a month. We’ve been close since then,” Self said. “Kyle did a fantastic job as a full-time assistant and recruited Texas very well for OSU. He’s good. He’ll help us a lot.”
Keller — he also has been an assistant at Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio and been a head coach at Tyler Junior College — admits he’d like to return to full-time coaching in the future.
As video coordinator, he’s not allowed to coach in accordance with NCAA rules. Of course, he’s free to provide input at staff meetings.
“My deal with coach Self was, I came here to learn. That’s what is happening,” Keller said. “I’ve worked with some great staffs. To me, this is the best one I’ve been part of. I learn something every day, and I’ve done this 20 years.
“I feel I am an ambitious person. I have goals and dreams. I’d like to run my own program again someday. It’s something I enjoy. If I hung it up today and somebody said, ‘You can’t do this anymore,’ I’d have no regrets. I just want to continue to do something to impact kids’ lives.”
Keller said his perspective on life changed drastically on Jan. 27, 2001, when 10 members of OSU’s basketball program died in a plane crash in a snowstorm returning from a game at Colorado. He was on one of the two OSU planes that made it back to Stillwater safely.
“It changed, impacted my life the way I look at doing this and being around kids,” said Keller. He wears a lapel pin on his suit at all games and functions, a pin honoring his 10 friends who died.
“Coaching should be about helping kids, making a difference in their lives. That’s one thing I see in coach Self and his staff and Mr. Perkins (Lew, athletic director) and members of the administration here. It’s all about the kids. The kids are first here. I don’t think it’s like that everywhere you go. The coaches here have recruited some great kids, who want to learn and are fun to be around. I feel blessed to be here.”