By Todd Golden
TERRE HAUTE — Jake Kelly is coming home … to become a Sycamore.
Kelly, whose childhood was spent in Vigo County and Marshall, Ill., made a verbal commitment to transfer to Indiana State from the University of Iowa.
Kelly’s transfer to ISU was a widely anticipated move after he was released from his Iowa scholarship last week and after he expressed a desire to play closer to home, but Kelly himself didn’t confirm it until a Tuesday telephone interview with the Tribune-Star.
“Coming home … that’s the main reason for me leaving Iowa. I had some good things going at Iowa. I hate to leave the Big Ten, I was making some good progress there, but some things are more important, like being around your family and friends,” said Kelly in a Tuesday telephone interview. “Plus, I’m excited about the ISU program. I feel I’m a good fit with the coaches and they fit my personality.”
The lure of coming home was irresistible for Kelly, who experienced the tragedy of losing his mother — Julia Kelly — in a June 7, 2008 plane crash just off the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. Julia Kelly had moved to Iowa from Carmel to be with Jake Kelly while he played for the Hawkeyes. Jake Kelly had moved to Carmel from Marshall, Ill., with his mother, and he played the final two years of his high school career at Carmel High School.
Kelly played at Marshall — which is just over the Illinois state line, 15 miles from the ISU campus — from 2003-05 before he transferred to Carmel.
Kelly’s father — Bob Kelly, who lives in Terre Haute — told the Tribune-Star last week that Jake Kelly intended to transfer to ISU, but hadn’t had any contact with the coaching staff.
Once released from his Iowa scholarship, things fell into line for the Sycamores in short order. Current ISU assistant coach Greg Lansing was on then-Iowa coach Steve Alford’s staff when the Hawkeyes began to show interest in Kelly during his Marshall and Carmel careers.
“I’m real excited to be closer to home. I think we’ll get Hulman Center packed again because we’re going to be a good team, we’re going to be playing at a high level and I think we can contend for the NCAA Tournament. All of that excites me about coming to ISU,” Kelly said.
As per NCAA rules, ISU coaches are not allowed to comment on Kelly until he signs his letter of intent. Men’s basketball signing day is April 15.
Kelly still has many friends in the area, including Logan and Lucas Eitel, also former Marshall players who will play at ISU next year as walk-ons. Kelly attended Marshall’s super-sectional and IHSA Class 2A state semifinal games during the Lions’ recent third-place run in the Illinois state boys basketball playoffs.
“I was really happy for [Marshall] coach [Tom] Brannan, he deserved that type of success. He’s always in the gym, as a sixth grader he welcomed me into the open gyms and he made me better,” Kelly said.
What Kelly does not yet know is when he’ll be playing for the Sycamores. Normally, Kelly would have to sit out a year after transferring from one Division I program to another, but given his family circumstance, Kelly will file for a hardship exemption to gain eligibility to play next season.
The hardship process has already begun, but Kelly does not yet have a timeframe as to when he’ll get a decision from the NCAA.
“I have to write a formal letter to the NCAA and then it goes from there,” Kelly said. “They need to make sure it’s truly a hardship case and make sure I’m not trying to pull a fast one, just so I can go to a better program. Given my situation, I’m confident the NCAA will approve it.”
Kelly, who is 6-foot-6 and 185 pounds, averaged 11.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists for Iowa last season as he was an honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection.
Kelly came into his own late in the season, winning Big Ten Player of the Week twice in a three-week span in late February and March. Kelly won the honor on Feb. 23 after he had 23 points, nine assists and eight rebounds against Michigan on Feb. 22.
He won the honor again on March 9 after he averaged 20.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists in games against Ohio State and Penn State. He had a career-high 11 rebounds against Ohio State and a career-high 11 assists against Penn State.
He also notched a career-high 23 points against Northwestern on Feb. 28. Nine of his career individual highs at Iowa occurred in games played after Feb. 28, 2009. Not included in that was a 20-point, five-rebound, four-assist effort against current Final Four participant Michigan State on Feb. 25.
The potential arrival of Kelly — which has been rumored for at least a month among ISU diehards as well as fans around both Marshall and Terre Haute — has sent Sycamore fans into a fever pitch. No player has transferred into the ISU program with the weight of expectation Kelly will have in at least a decade, probably not since Steve Hart, a Terre Haute native, transferred from Indiana in the mid 1990s.
Kelly anticipates the pressure and feels playing in the Big Ten for two years will help him cope with it.
“The Big Ten has quite a bit of pressure and so does playing in Iowa. There’s no professional teams in Iowa, so pretty much everyone follows the Hawkeyes. You’re a big fish in small pond up here, so I don’t think it’ll be much different at ISU, except for the fact I’ll have a lot family and friends to support me along the way.”
Kelly joins a guard-heavy roster at ISU, which was 11-21 last season, but finished the year by winning seven of its last nine games. Starting guards Harry Marshall, Rashad Reed and Jordan Printy will all be back next year, along with Aaron Carter and Louisiana Tech transfer Dwayne Lathan, who will be eligible next season after sitting out a year. Incoming freshman Jake Odum — as well as the Eitel twins — also join a crowded backcourt.
Kelly expects to play both point guard and shooting guard at ISU, but isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Honestly, I just want to fit in and win games, I don’t want to make this about me. Just because I’m coming from a Big Ten program, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a team thing and I want to fit in to get us where we need to be at,” Kelly said.
“Honestly, I see a lot of talent on this team and it showed at the end of last season. The style is more up-tempo than Iowa and I think that fits me better. I think the NCAA Tournament is a reachable goal,” he added.
Kelly had good things to say about Iowa coach Todd Lickliter and stressed that his departure had nothing to do with the second-year Iowa coach. Kelly is one of four Hawkeyes that are transferring out of Iowa City after the Hawkeyes were 15-17 last season.
“Me and coach Lick got along real well. I’ve been really appreciative of the things he taught me. He turned me into one of the Big Ten’s best players, I can’t thank him enough for that,” Kelly said.
Kelly — who will claim the last remaining scholarship currently available at ISU — is the first Big Ten player to transfer to ISU since Terence Avery came from Northwestern in 1998.