Men’s basketball: Keely is key

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“Work it harder / Make it better / Do it faster / Makes us stronger.”

These lyrics were drawn from Daft Punk’s song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” (later sampled by Kanye West in his hit single “Stronger”). The meaning is simple: working harder makes us stronger. When traced back to the original source, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the saying goes: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

It’s doubtful Ohio forward Reggie Keely had 19th Century German philosophy or ‘90s French house music on his mind after two underachieving seasons. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Keely averaged just more than five points and four rebounds per contest. It’s probably not what head coach John Groce had in mind when recruiting a McDonald’s High School All-America nominee and top-10 recruit in the state of Ohio coming out of high school. In his senior season at Cleveland Heights High School, Keely averaged 21 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.

Calling his college performance a major drop-off would be an understatement. Standing tall at 6 feet 8 inches and weighing in at 263 pounds, Keely was not living up to his potential.

Keely, now a junior, started 26 of 72 games in his first two seasons. However, this season he hasn’t started a single game and is having his best statistical season by a long shot. What’s the cause for the transformation? Working it harder and making it better.

“I’m just a lot more confident this year,” Keely said. “I’ve been known to make shots here and there, but I never really had confidence in my freshman or sophomore year to take shots. This year in the offseason I proved to myself and to my teammates that I can make plays.”

And make plays he has. Keely has nearly doubled his scoring output, averaging 10 points per game. A goal of the team this season was to rebound, and Keely has done his part by yanking down five per game. A newfound feature is his nose for the ball. Ohio has been one of the best teams in the MAC at forcing turnovers. The ‘Cats have stolen the ball 132 times in just 14 games. Fourteen of those steals belong to Reggie Keely who averaged only 15 per season in his Ohio career.

“Obviously, [Keely] has been a big part of our program,” Groce said. “I think the biggest thing is that he’s older, a little bit more mature. Experience has been a great teacher for him.”

Keely’s experiences have included the ups and downs of Ohio Bobcats basketball. Keely was a freshman on the 2008-09 team that shocked the basketball world by upsetting Georgetown by 14 points in the NCAA Tournament after winning the MAC Tournament. Last season the ‘Cats finished 19-16 and stuck in the middle was Reggie Keely.

Now the forward has been a key piece in one of Ohio’s most successful starts in school history. The ‘Cats 12-1 record prior to Monday’s loss to Robert Morris tied them for Ohio’s best start with the 1920-’21 squad. Keely’s presence off the bench has been nothing less than huge for Ohio.

“We’re 12-2,” Keely said, “I can’t complain about that. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and try to pick it up every game so we can continue the success.”

Off the bench or in the starting lineup, Keely is prepared to fill his role. He says that he’ll do “whatever it takes to win.” Working in an undersized frontcourt, Keely and fellow post players Ivo Baltic and Jon Smith have had their fair share of challenges this season. Not one of Ohio’s forwards, save Cincinnati transfer Kenny Belton (one minute per game average), is a true power player. In the wake of DeVaughn Washington’s graduation, Baltic was glad to start the season with an improved Keely alongside him.

“He’s definitely gotten in a lot better shape,” Baltic said. “His confidence has grown.”

Keely has plenty of reason to be confident. Keely is the fourth leading scorer on one of the nation’s most formidable mid-major programs. What may be scary to Ohio’s opponents is the fact that he still has one year left to play.

“I’m hoping that he can make another jump between his junior and senior year,” said Groce. “A lot of that depends on how hard he’s willing to work, how badly he wants it, what he’s willing to sacrifice. I’ve seen guys get a lot better in the offseason. That’s usually where the players are made.”

Keely’s improvement has been evident to his coaches, teammates, and fans. The question is whether it can continue. Ohio fans most certainly hope so. There’s no question the work will be harder. Will it make Reggie Keely better, faster, and stronger? Following the logic of Daft Punk, it will. “More than ever.”