“I’m just ready to play that game,” McGruder said. “I wish it was tomorrow. I’m always excited and amped up for it. Can’t wait.”
Fifteen points and five rebounds in 39 minutes, with little help, backed up his claim. It’s just that nobody else in purple appeared ready to battle with him.
You could point at individual shooting performances that culminated in a 31.6-percent night. You could talk poor shot selection that added to it, the 8-of-16 night from the free throw line or that experienced players like Shane Southwell were described after the game as “in over their head” by the head coach. Or, if you really wanted to chop at the Wildcats’ stones, you could take aim at the 50-26 advantage Kansas won on the boards. K-State normally makes its bones there. On Wednesday night, however, KU played the pimp on that front and straight slapped the money out the girl’s hands. Thomas Robinson and Travis Releford combined for 25 rebounds alone; one less than K-State managed as a team.
All of it, however, all of it, mixed into the bowl that K-State head coach Frank Martin baked his pregame cake with. Immediately following his team’s win against Howard, it was about how good KU has been and is. It was about how well-coached they are. It was about how amazing the fans in Allen Fieldhouse are – the same message he’s given for years now. He voiced the same words after the game was over Wednesday night, and all of it is true, undoubtedly. Seven straight conference championships, tied or outright, earns that.
However, as the point man for the rival, the incoming enemy leader in this case, you can’t voice those sentiments. It waters down the fire before it really flames; salts down the road before it snows. It causes your team to think it has to play beyond its, perhaps, already pretty decent capabilities in order to win. When a team gets into a mindset it has to over-perform in order to achieve? That never works. See Jamar Samuels shooting five 3-pointers, Angel Rodriguez trying to drive the baseline against taller players or seldom-used Nino Williams*** (Nino Williams!) shooting jumpers outside the arc.
***Martin said afterward that Williams found playing time because his practices had been good leading up to the game. There is merit to that, granted. But, Martin is sometimes too loyal to that philosophy. If the 8, 9 and 10 guys on a roster practice well, it doesn’t mean the 8, 9 and 10 guys should find 12 minutes in a game like this one. And, for those who want to point out that Williams grabbed four rebounds in 12 minutes, we could discuss his ability to get lost while defending screens at key points of the game, or that his tying for second-most boards among KSU players is way more an indictment on better players than a cause for praise on his account.
On the large scale, until the public kowtowing changes, K-State can continue to be good, top 20 or better, but will never be better than its in-state rival. Why? Because it won’t be able to get out of its own head. Not when it comes to playing in Lawrence. Not when Martin owns his teams they way he does but delivers that sort of message when it comes to playing in Lawrence.
Martin going 0-5 in Lawrence is poison in the program’s mental IV. It’s crack instead of straight coke. And, we all know crack is whack.
There’s an art to it. And, much like art in real life, sometimes it takes the ridiculously sloppy, once in a lifetime, see what happens approach to make it work. Jim Wooldridge and Tyler Hughes could tell you that. That method isn’t suggested, or wanted for that matter. Besides, it would seem Martin, who understands and appreciates his program’s history, might be better suited to the old ways of Jack Hartman.
Hartman, much like Missouri legend Norm Stewart, simply did not care where his team played the Jayhawks. All he knew was he hated them. There was no respect. None. There was only a want to destroy. Martin seems to reflect that sentiment most of the time; until it comes to KU in Lawrence. Then it becomes about how hard winning in Lawrence is; how hard winning in the Big 12 is. Again, it’s not to say that’s wrong. It is correct, in fact. But, tell yourself something long enough, and you start to believe it.
What does it mean in the big picture moving forward for the Wildcats? Nothing really. They will rebound, both literally and figuratively. They will fight their way through the rest of the Big 12 schedule, including Kansas at Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 13. And, they will probably do well in most of those games because as I told Nick Wright on 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City, this isn’t a peak-and-valley team. Instead, it is a steady group that will, normally, stay within itself and its abilities. However, it is another year where the performance in Lawrence was beyond lacking, despite a second-half run that proved meaningless. For a team that had cracked the Top 25, entered Wednesday playing at a high level and was looking for a little validation to its 11-1 start, it was disappointing.
That said, one has to wonder now where an 0-2 start to Big 12 play (should K-State lose to red-hot Missouri on Saturday) would put this team with so many young or first-year players in the fold. It will be adversity not yet seen by this team.
It will be up to the coach to keep them in the right frame of mind for Baylor after that and the 15 conference games that follow.