The Resurgence of Rodney

17 Feb

Photo by Rich Sugg, Kansas City Star

Off the court, Rodney McGruder is a great personality, and people migrate to him. On the court, he is all business. According to coach Frank Martin, the more serious mentality is exactly what young Kansas State needs.

“Ain’t no time for games,” Martin said. “Basketball’s his life, his passion.”

The unwavering intensity during practices as well as games is something the Wildcats lost from last season. Martin goes back to the guys whose work ethic he holds as a benchmark: Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente, Luis Colon and Chris Merriewether.

“Clemente would throw a ball off your face in a heartbeat if you were joking around in practice,” Martin said. “Chris Merriewether would pick you up and slam you if you were joking around in practice. Now off the court, those guys were awesome. They were awesome. If Luis Colon saw me get mad in practice because somebody took a shortcut, I felt bad for somebody in practice. I’m just telling you. I’m being honest with you.

“That’s what this team has missed this year. We don’t have that. We’re trying to find that.”

His teammates have noticed. In practice, if you do not match his intensity, you will end up getting burned and looking bad.

“If you go soft in practice, that day that you don’t feel like practicing, and you’ve got to guard him, he’s going to score on you all the time because he’s always in attack mode,” freshman guard Angel Rodriguez said. “I think it kind of pushes you to play hard, especially if you always have to guard him.”

Before taking on Kansas in Bramlage, the Wildcats grinned like kids as they laughed and danced in the tunnel before emerging for warmups prior to the Big Monday matchup. Shane Southwell and Angel Rodriguez joined in the pre-game tradition that was usually dominated by Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez.

McGruder, on the other hand, came onto the court without a smile. He played 38 minutes in the game and finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds. It was not his best performance by any stretch, but it spoke again of the consistency and work ethic he brings to the floor.

Pullen, Clemente, Colon and Merriewether demonstrated the single-minded focus during their time at Kansas State, and then-young McGruder paid attention. Now, the point guard has come to exemplify that same approach this season.

“When Rodney was a freshman, he learned from those guys,” Martin said. “I’d sit back and I’d watch him. He’d chase those guys around. He wanted to find out why those guys had all the success that they had. He wanted to be one of them.”

This year, he has indeed become one of the team’s leaders, but recently that new role took a backseat because of a painful infected callous on the guard’s toe. It kept him out of practice for two weeks, forcing him to devote most of his attention to his own performance.

Martin understands this shift and expects that as McGruder gets back in tune with his own game, he will put increasing emphasis on holding his teammates accountable for their performances as well.

On Thursday, the coach seemed optimistic that the time would come soon.

“As a player, you can lead all you want, but you have to do your part too, and he was struggling with himself and his game, so it was hard for him to lead others because he was trying to find himself, trying to do something that he’s never done, which is play without practice,” Martin said. “As soon as he starts feeling comfortable with himself again, which I saw today, then he’ll start trying to lead the others also.”

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