INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Butler forward Kelan Martin always has been a scorer. This season, he learned to thrive in a new role — team leader.
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Butler forward Kelan Martin always has been a scorer.
This season, he learned to thrive in a new role — team leader.
It was an awkward position for the 6-foot-7 senior, who had never before been handed the reins to a team and wasn't always keen on speaking his mind. But with only two seniors on a young roster and a new coach in town, Martin stepped forward and made the transformation look smooth and natural.
"I think he's got a maturity about him from his experiences that has helped him and has helped him help others. I've watched him go put his arm around (freshman) Aaron Thompson," coach LaVall Jordan said. "After we lost to Georgetown, Kelan went around the locker room and talked to every guy individually. That's how he's grown."
Martin always seemed more focused on leading by example. And based on the numbers, he was hard to ignore.
Martin heads into Friday's NCAA Tournament opener against seventh-seeded Arkansas (23-11) needing just nine points to become the third member of the Bulldogs' 2,000-point club. He can pass Darrin Fitzgerald for second on the school's career scoring list with 29 points and needs 18 rebounds to leapfrog the late Joel Cornette for No. 10 on Butler's career list.
Jordan and Martin both knew the Bulldogs (20-13) needed more than just big numbers to be successful this season. Martin did not disappoint — on or off the court.
He finished with career highs in scoring (20.8 points), rebounds (6.2) and assists (2.0). He was a unanimous selection to the Big East first team after scoring a league-high 23.6 points in conference play.
But Martin's biggest contributions were not always seen by the fans.
"I told everyone we didn't play well, we didn't play our best game, we didn't compete in practice," Martin said, recalling his message following an 87-83 loss to Georgetown on Feb. 13. "I told them we have to compete better in practice."
It's quite a turnaround for Martin, whose work habits and defensive mindset were questioned in high school. Just last season, in fact, then coach Chris Holtmann pulled Martin out of Butler's starting lineup more than once for what Martin now describes as not working hard enough.
But he clearly learned a lesson. After each benching Martin responded with better effort and more productive games to win back his starting job.
"I wasn't playing well. I had to go out and compete," he said. "There was no need to pout. I was one of the older guys on the team, and I had to be mature about the situation."
It set him up well for this season, too.
After Holtmann departed for Ohio State, Jordan left Milwaukee to take his dream job at his alma mater. He had three starters back — Martin, undersized center Tyler Wideman and sophomore Kamar Baldwin, who was playing point guard for the first time in his career.
So he needed Martin to get the job done. Over the course of the season, Martin's mindset evolved and Jordan noticed.
In addition to offering support to Thompson and challenging his team after a tough home loss, Martin also sent Baldwin an encouraging text following the sophomore's seven-turnover performance in a double-overtime loss at St. John's on Feb. 28.
His message: Stay aggressive.
Baldwin responded with a better performance in the regular-season finale before averaging 22 points in Butler's two Big East tourney games.
"It meant a lot to have arguably the best player in the nation supporting me," Baldwin said. "And it meant a lot to know you had the confidence of him behind you."
Now, as the Bulldogs head to Detroit for their first game against Arkansas since 1931, it's Martin who senses the urgency of the moment.
He knows his milestone career is nearing an end, and he's not ready to say goodbye just yet. So he has one more request for his teammates.
"I'm going to tell them to just go out there and play our game," he said. "It's win or go home."
Follow Michael Marot on Twitter @apmarot