Keli Leaupepe is entering his third season with the Lions feeling confident and relaxed. Those words seem to describe Leaupepe in general, whether he’s on the court, in the community or just hanging out on campus. Leaupepe is known for his energy, making big plays in-game and for being a team leader both in statistics and in the locker room.
“A lot of people recognize me as the guy from the team," Leaupepe noted. “I like talking with people, even just walking around the school, going to [Burns Recreation Center], you know. I like meeting new people.”
That magnetic personality is part of why Leaupepe has gotten attention beyond LMU’s campus, but it’s not the only reason. He’s also known for his instantly recognizable style — Leaupepe and his signature mullet went viral last season, lighting up Twitter and even appearing on SportsCenter. Following two early-season games against the University of Minnesota last year, Leaupepe and his mullet became a social media sensation. The Lions lost both games, but, perhaps more importantly, the sports world at large took notice. Twitter took flight, with descriptions such as “glorious,” “absolute legend” and “the perfect college basketball player” being aptly thrown around. Even a BuzzFeed quiz was spawned, asking, “What Type of Keli Leaupepe Mullet Are You?”
“It was crazy. It was after the Minnesota game, a few guys told me, 'You're going viral,' and I was like, 'I haven’t even seen my phone.' When I saw my phone, it was just blowing up — like on Instagram I was getting all these followers. My phone was crashing, it was crazy.”
Leaupepe, who is originally from Melbourne, Australia, said the success was even international.
“My mom was loving it back home in Australia. I was on TV, ESPN, stuff like that,” he said, laughing.
This year, Leaupepe is debuting a new look — the mullet remains, but he’s brought a buzzed, bleached style to the forefront. His inspiration? Dennis Rodman, the colorful, former NBA star who was just as well-known for his outlandish hairstyles as for his defense and rebounding. Leaupepe said he was coerced into the change by his teammates, but he likes the look.
“I like feeling how I want to feel in my skin. I wanted to do it, so I’ll do it.”
Whether in style, basketball or life as a whole, Leaupepe’s mentality is focused on staying true to himself. Building on those hallmarks is one of the goals he is taking into the 2021-2022 season, as well as improving on where he left off last season.
Last year, the team went 13-9 overall, with a 7-5 in-conference record. They finished third in the West Coast Conference (WCC), behind Gonzaga and BYU. Leaupepe’s 2020-2021 season was cut short by injury, taking him out of the WCC championship. However, even in his shortened season, Leaupepe impressed. He led the team in shooting from the free throw line at 80.6%, was second on the team with about two offensive rebounds per game and was one of three Lions who averaged double-digit points. This year, Leaupepe has made it clear he intends to do even better.
“We want to be in the March Madness tournament, that’s ultimately our goal. We want to win the conference as well.”
With the injuries that took him out last year—a stress reaction in his leg and a hand injury that required surgery—behind him, Leaupepe is feeling strong and refreshed for the new season. The time off was helpful, but he’s ready to get back to it, especially with the return of fans to Gersten Pavilion. The Lions are also slated to play 29 regular season games this year, up from 22 last season, as 13 games were canceled or postponed last season. All told, it’s looking like a fresh start for LMU basketball, and one that they plan to take full advantage of.
This year, the Lions are adopting a 5-Out offense style, and the team is being asked to be more versatile and more aggressive with the new strategy. Leaupepe noted that the biggest challenge will be the size difference between LMU and their opponents, as the team lineup this year is somewhat undersized compared to other teams. Leaupepe, typically a forward, expects to get some playing time at center and feels he has a challenge ahead of him in that role. Center is a position typically reserved for the tallest players, and even Leaupepe, standing at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, hopes he can measure up.
The new position is all part of the plan, as the focus of the new strategy is on constant movement, and players aren’t limited to certain plays or positions. This plan emphasizes fundamentals and requires full team involvement, which should benefit the Lions. However, the complexity of the program means that the team will need solid leadership, adaptability and someone who can step up while maintaining focus on the team as a whole.
Who better to fill that role than Keli Leaupepe, who has built his career thus far on high energy play and versatility, and who has proved he’s comfortable with the spotlight? According to Leaupepe, that responsibility isn’t a problem.
“I want to be a role model to the new guys coming in, with my work ethic and even with just what I do on the court, like diving on loose balls and rebounding. I want to give them that extra 1%. It feels good that I have guys coming in and they’re looking up to me.”
When asked how he’s become someone whom so many players look up to, Leaupepe’s answer was humble.
“I’ve just been being me. That feeds off my personality on the court. I guess they enjoy having me on the court, as well as just bringing the energy.”
As established players and likely the most recognizable faces on the team, it is going to fall to Leaupepe and fifth-year guard/forward Eli Scott to lead the team. Working with Scott again is one of the other aspects Leaupepe is most looking forward to this season.
“He’s one of the greatest players ever to come through LMU, I’d say. He’s great to play with. Sometimes he does things and I’m just like, 'That was pretty cool,'” said Leaupepe.
Success on the court isn’t the only sign that times are changing for LMU basketball. The team, which has historically been one of LMU’s biggest claims to athletic fame, hasn't gotten much notoriety lately outside of local circles. But with figures like Leaupepe and Scott, LMU basketball is taking strides toward putting itself back on the map.