Kansas State forward Darren Kent has been through a lot in his college basketball career.
During his time in Manhattan, Kan., the fourth-year senior has seen three different coaches, a teammate receive the Big 12 Player of the Year recognition, the end to two huge losing streaks against rival Kansas, and the Wildcats’ first NCAA appearance in 12 years. That was followed by the school’s first tournament win in more than two decades.
Kansas State (19-8, 7-5 Big 12) at Missouri (23-4, 10-2)
WHEN: 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KBXR/102.3 FM, KFRU/1400 AM
Like the program during his time there, Kent has come a long way.
He played limited minutes in just eight games during his freshman year for a team that was 15-13. He missed most of Big 12 play due to a concussion he suffered from diving for a loose ball in practice. That included the win that snapped Kansas State's 31-game losing streak against rival Kansas.
In his fourth and final trip to Mizzou Arena today, the 6-foot-11 Apple Valley, Minn., native will likely start for the 19-8 Wildcats for the 26th time this season. He's become more of a threat on the offensive end, and he was the man who held Iowa State's Craig Brackins to only four points in the second half of Kansas State's 50-46 win last Saturday.
“It’s been a progression throughout my four years and just getting used to the speed of the game and letting my body develop,” Kent said in a phone interview. “It’s taken a little longer than I would like.”
Kent got his first career start in this season's opener against Florida A&M. The next game, against Southeast Missouri State, he set new career highs with 15 points and 12 rebounds. His scoring average of nine points per game is more than six points better than it was his junior season, and he leads the team with 5.6 rebounds per game, compared to 2.3 last season.
Of course, two big reasons for Kent’s increased production are Bill Walker and 2008 Big 12 Player of the Year Michael Beasley, both of whom entered the NBA draft last spring. That left Kansas State coach Frank Martin looking for players to help make up for the 42 points and 18 rebounds per game that the two stars averaged for the Wildcats.
“I knew that our team needed another scorer and needed another guy to step up for us,” Kent said. “We had sat down and talked that I needed to be more aggressive this year and be more assertive on the court.”
It was during his junior season that Kent said he improved the most and finally became comfortable on the floor against Big 12 opponents. It showed up in his playing time, as his minutes per game average went from 6.5 the season before to 13.4, even though he was playing behind Kansas State’s two best players.
“To have guys like Mike and Bill come in last year I think really helped my game,” Kent said. “I had to guard Mike every day in practice and he taught me a lot.”
As Kent improved, so did the Wildcats. He grabbed four rebounds and dished out three assists in Kansas State's upset of No. 2 Kansas that ended a 24-game home losing streak against the Jayhawks. Later, he played eight minutes in Kansas State's first NCAA tournament win since 1988, against Southern California.
Looking back on his first two years, Kent said he never imagined having this kind of success. After his freshman season, Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge was fired and the Wildcats made national news with the hire of Bob Huggins. The former Cincinnati coach raised the expectations of the program, and his intense, no-nonsense style was a big departure from the more laid-back Wooldridge.
It was no guarantee that a player like Kent would even retain his spot on the team, let alone find time on the court. It wasn’t an easy time for Kent, who said he had some serious talks with his family and friends about transferring somewhere else.
“I had contemplated it but I was just really confused because I really wasn’t expecting (Woolridge’s firing),” Kent said. “After sitting down with Coach Huggins and Coach Martin, I really kind of showed that I was going to be here for them.”
Kent had to work hard to earn the trust of his new coaches, and he ended up playing 6.5 minutes per game in 24 appearances. After the season, Huggins bolted for West Virginia, but Kent said the transition to Martin’s coaching style was a lot easier.
In his long-awaited role as a significant contributor, the Wildcats are looking to Kent as one of their leaders, a position he said he hadn't been in since high school. His vocal leadership is something that's coming back to him slowly, but Kansas State's lone senior has no problem leading by example.
"The key thing about being a leader to me is being a guy who’s going to go out and work hard every day," Kent said. " I think I’ve shown the guys that this year."