It took a huge amount of testicular fortitude from Rodney McGruder and yet another (yes, another!) dominant performance inside from Jordan Henriquez, but Kansas State did what it does best in surviving itself and outlasting Southern Miss, 70-64, to move to the NCAA Tournament third round where it will play Syracuse on Saturday.
Lots of thoughts were borne from the game; a couple of them great, some of them, well, I’ll start with the good ones.
- Ride, McGruder, ride: Phenomenal. That’s what McGruder is. And quiet, too, which is a really nice bonus. Unlike some guys who spend two years or more talking about being a leader, or better yet, detailing how they are going to be a leader, McGruder just walked out on the court, again, and refused to let K-State beat itself.
With two other starters (Will Spradling and Jamar Samuels) shooting a combined 1-of-4 from the field and scoring three points, McGruder had no choice but to shoot, shoot some more and then keep shooting because his teammates didn’t answer the bell. Instead, he power-hammered a gong with 18 points in the first half and finished with 30 on 11-of-16 shooting. Angel Rodriguez scored more late (and when he just decided he wasn’t interested in running an offense), but it was McGruder and McGruder alone who got the ‘Cats to the next round. Darn shame it has to be done almost entirely on individual effort.
- Jordan Henriquez, paint restoration – The man ain’t lettin’ nobody in the paint, period. Yeah, he looks awkward when the nearly seven-footer tried to jam a ball with one hand or even two, and it isn’t close (yes, I understand he was fouled on a couple of those, but come on…when he is flat-footed, the rim is only three feet above his head). But, what’s most important is that where there’s plenty of room to grow offensively, JO has grown at the other end of the floor. He reads players as they enter the lane, he measures a shot’s trajectory, and he erases the attempt. Or, say he doesn’t quite get the block, he’s affecting a lot of shots now. He doesn’t look lost. He doesn’t look hurried. He looks at home.
And yep, okay that about wraps up the good portion, so on to the areas of concern…
- If you hadn’t already, do like I will do eventually and throw away that “Jamar Samuels is superb” story I wrote because I’m superbly aware that I was sucked into thinking a four- or five-week stretch, when head coach Frank Martin repeatedly said “he’s been awesome,” was a suitable sample size to replace four years’ of history.
The games in that stretch were fantastic, no doubt, but to think the player himself had changed? Wrong. There just flat isn’t any rhyme or reason to Samuels. No matter where he plays after he leaves Manhattan, he will always be good enough to be the MVP in a given game, or he might not take a single shot in 27 minutes as he didn’t against Southern Miss.
That stat alone is terrifying for more than one reason because while Samuels certainly is to blame for his laughably large no-shows at times, there are other things amiss when your struggling senior isn’t even in position to find a shot.
- System? What system?: Against Southern Miss, the number one option, obviously, was McGruder. Without question, he should have been against the Golden Eagles, and he should be anyways because he’s not afraid to shoot like others are. However, within the course of an entire game, again, when your starting forward can’t find the ball on the block within your offense, you have issues. We all knew that this team was/is offensively challenged offensively challenged, but that’s unbelievable. Not a single attempt? Not even a straight isolation play where you say, “Come hell or high water, Jamar, park it on the block and shoot when the ball comes to you”?
For that to happen over 27 minutes is a crime. Either 1) Samuels, despite getting eight rebounds, should not be on the floor that long or 2) the coaches failed in not getting one of the most, if not the most, athletic guys on the floor multiple chances to put the ball in the hoop. After all of this said, he did score a point from the free throw line, so…there’s that.
Perhaps part of the problem, however, is that while I love Angel Rodriguez’s makeup, the kid needs to learn that you can’t semi-regularly forsake a play-call or situation in favor of improvising on your own, just because you think you see a first-step opportunity at the top of the key. It happens with Angel often enough that I would think it’s almost impossible to know when and where he’s going to ditch everything else and drive. Even then, maybe he passes, probably he does not. It’s not by accident that Angel winds up a lot of the time with the second-most shot attempts in any given game, despite not always being open. He can create, no doubt, and it’s a great piece to his game. But, to do so at the expense of offensive flow, or at the expense of taking the ball out of other guys’ hands doesn’t help anyone on the whole.
Multiple times this year, without naming names, Martin has pointed out that his team plays selfishly. From my vantage point, this is one of those examples. Rodriguez did it several times down the stretch against Southern Miss, with mixed results. He scored some, he turned over the ball some – almost too much late in the game. It’s not a full “gonna-get-mine” mentality or situation, but it’s certainly not good decision making either.
Of course…maybe there really isn’t any better way to do things other than to let Angel do what he does because when I say “system,” I don’t think it’s limited to the offense, necessarily. Why…?
- …Because for the sake of me, I can’t figure out how guys get the minutes they do: Production is obviously not a factor at this point, which, among everything else this year that has confused me with this team, this is the biggest head-scratcher. Many guys have
been forced off gone elsewhere after short stays because they weren’t living up to the demands of their one-year contract…er…scholarships. We can debate that all day if we want, but right now, my focus (along with many others) is on how that’s not the case; that it has become a 180-degree turn to where it seems some guys can’t stay off the floor no matter what they do.
Example 1) Say what you want, but Will Spradling’s production, virtually since 2012 began, hasn’t warranted being a starter, let alone earned the kind of minutes he’s played. His averages over the past 10 games: 32.5 minutes, 6.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.9 assists, 1.4 turnovers. He is also shooting 28.9 percent from the field but still led the team in minutes in three of those 10 games. Never mind he has not scored in double figures in his past seven outings, while still getting more than 32 minutes per.
The point is not to beleaguer Spradling’s effort level. But, he has been beaten defensively, noticeably, multiple times in games, and when you add that to his extended lack of offense, it really becomes a mystery to how or why someone else isn’t given at least the opportunity to contribute, or why they seem to be held to different standards as they fight for the scraps of minutes that are left over.
This is normally where we hear the “I don’t worry about…” answer from Frank, and that’s alright except when your team has been noticeably hamstrung by Will’s slump, how do you not worry? How do you reason having him out there more than anybody else, multiple times, during his roughest stretch?
Example 2) Were it not for his ability to take himself out of games by fouling, Samuels would be on the floor nearly as much as Spradling, which, when the ineffective Jamar reigns, means K-State is left with a semi-regular 3-on-5 dilemma in trying to score. It leads to Angel Rodriguez getting antsy, hard-headed, or both and making bad decisions. It leads to McGruder having to flat carry the team, which he does for the most part, obviously. But, what happens when other teams have the ability to guard him (see Iowa State and/or Kansas). The offense and K-State’s chances are toast at that point.
The point here is it is puzzling that the decision apparently was made that as long as Samuels isn’t in foul trouble, he plays, regardless of whether he’s having a good game or not. When it’s bad Jamar, that’s a death sentence because he’s more interested in arguing with his coach, questioning officials and pretending he’s not laying on guys in the post. None of that is a help to K-State.
Overall, if you are any number of guys on the bench – Jeremy Jones, Omari Lawrence, Shane Southwell or Adrian Diaz (who Martin trumped about six weeks ago as a guy who NEEDED minutes and now can’t get on the floor) – what does that do for your team spirit to see other guys not produce and still play that much? If it doesn’t affect them, they are absolute robots.***
I don’t think they are robots.
***I’m not saying those guys mentioned have necessarily warranted more playing time through their own production. I’m saying I understand the mindset of a guy on the bench who thinks he would at least like an extended shot to prove why he should or shouldn’t be on the floor.
This team, maybe more at this point in the year than the rest, feels like a jagged assortment of individual talents much more than it does a program with central core philosophies and guys slotted into roles. Keeping that in mind, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that consistency has been a season-long issue despite the team being quite proficient at individual pieces of the game like rebounding.
I’ve had the feeling for some time that, while being in the NCAA Tournament is fun and all that, this group really has had one eye on just getting the season over with. What does that mean, exactly? I know that the players are fully expecting changes. Some have been talking about it for weeks. Who is leaving at this point is still up in the air to a degree…any message board will tell you that. In fact, if you believed every link/story to a possible transfer, by my count only Thomas Gipson, Rodriguez, Henriquez and McGruder would be back next year. Four returning players isn’t going to happen, obviously, but the point is it sounds as if a fair share of guys have had their eyes on the exit for some time.
Ask yourself: How does that affect a team in the final few minutes of a game, or games as it turned out this year, when every guy is supposed to be on the same page?
Ok, now, the fun part is that even with all of this going on, the Wildcats can make the Sweet 16. After watching Syracuse accept every officiating gift it could take in order to outlast UNC-Asheville, there’s no question KSU can hang and/or beat the Orange. (Plus, after Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s ungracious, smug, luck-had-nothing-to-do-with-it comments, a lot of folks will root for KSU. So, there’s that angle as well. And, doubly aside, has any coach done more to become hated over the past year than Boeheim? He always seemed pretty innocuous, to me anyways, until recently, where he has far and away played the defiant villain and seemingly had no problem doing so. Crazy.)
Considering all of this, the remarkable part is that K-State, for all intents and purposes, basically survived itself all season – to the tune of another 20-win season and another NCAA Tournament. There’s something to be said for that. It’s just that had things fit together better, it could have been more. And, looking ahead with the thought that there are never any guarantees and “changes” appear likely, one wonders, exactly, what next season may actually hold. Maybe it’s actually a better “team” environment. Who knows?
That’s next year, however, and this group still has at least one more game. My advice: root and root hard while enjoying the remainder of this tournament before buckling in for what could be a pretty interesting offseason.