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What He Built

2 Mar

SeniorsSenior Night sneaks up on you. It does. Believe me, I know.

Tuesday is the last night Kansas State fans will see Rodney McGruder, Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez play in Bramlage Coliseum. All have contributed greatly to this year’s team, but most of the focus – and understandably so – will be on McGruder.

In a time of transition, McGruder has been a constant. Looked to by his teammates as a leader, McGruder quickly bought into the system of first-year coach Bruce Weber and his staff. Weber is fully aware of how crucial McGruder’s cooperation was to the progress of this year’s team and the success the Wildcats (23-5, 12-3) have captured so far.

“When you’re the face of the program – which he is, I don’t think that’s saying something out of the realm of the truth – for him to buy in and really just right from the get-go accept what we believe in and what we do and not really rebel at all – if anything he just jumped on board, and that was so important,” Weber said. “You’ve got to appreciate that.”

Unlike some of the other (and younger) players, McGruder never wavered on the question of whether to stay at Kansas State after former coach Frank Martin’s departure to South Carolina. He had to see what could happen in Manhattan.

“I fought here for three years, and I think that would have been messed-up to leave what I built in this program,” McGruder said. “I wanted to finish what I started.”

Not surprisingly, all the other players followed suit. Now the team is tied with Kansas for first place in the Big 12 with three games remaining in the regular season. The senior class now has more wins (97) than any other class in Kansas State history, and Weber is tied for the most wins ever by a first-year Kansas State coach (23).

McGruder will hold all kinds of records at what will shortly be his alma mater, but that’s not what people will remember. They’ll remember the way he floats in the lane, the way he knocks down free throws, the way he drains 3s, the way he took ownership of a program going through a major transition. Mostly, if they read a little bit about him, they’ll remember the way he always had faith in what he and his teammates could accomplish at Kansas State, even after the departure of the popular, successful, fiery Martin.

“When that happened, a lot of stuff is going through your mind,” McGruder said. “You don’t know what to expect. When Frank first left, you didn’t know who your coach was going to be, but then the program went into Bruce Weber’s hands, and you saw the things that he accomplished at Illinois. You knew that big things could happen because I knew we were a pretty good team last year, but we had some plays that slipped away from us, so I knew that we could be good, and Bruce has proved that this year.”

Wildcats advance to championship round of NIT tournament

22 Nov

Kansas State squeaked by Delaware 66-63 in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, and No. 4 Michigan emerged victorious from a similarly competitive game against Pittsburgh, 67-62.

As a result, the Wildcats will have a top five opponent on the books in just their sixth game of the season.

Undoubtedly, Friday’s game against Michigan will be a challenge, but Kansas State coach Bruce Weber sees it as a great opportunity.

“If you want to be good, you have to play good teams and learn,” he said. “You’re going to play good teams in the Big 12, there’s no doubt about it.”

In Wednesday’s win over Delaware, the Wildcats got 12 points each from Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez and Thomas Gipson. Rodney McGruder and Shane Southwell both added 8.

Spradling also contributed seven assists and zero turnovers. The Wildcats shot a magical 12 of 14 from the free throw line, good for 85.7 percent, which included outstanding efforts from Rodriguez (6-7) and Spradling (4-4).

Of course, as might be expected with such a close final score, the game was not all roses.

“We did not play pretty,” Weber said. “That was pretty obvious. It had been so good for us at home, and we had defended so well, made shots, and the games came easy. Now it didn’t come quite as easy. We missed a lot of easy shots, made some mistakes defensively.”

Once again, the Wildcats survived in large part because of their depth. Though Spradling, Rodriguez, McGruder, Gipson and freshman forward D.J. Johnson separated themselves by playing at least half the game, nine players on the roster saw at nine minutes or more.

Weber has been giving nearly everyone significant court time to this point in the season, and it paid off Wednesday because he felt comfortable using those players against Delaware. Fresh legs make a huge difference, and that is something on which Kansas State have capitalized on multiple occasions.

“I want depth to be part of our brand,” Weber said. “If we can do that, that’s going to really add to an opponent trying to figure out who’s in there.”

The basketball Wildcats have operated largely under the radar early in the season because the football Wildcats have been so successful. Instead of the media microscope scrutinizing the first-year coach tasked with replacing the popular Frank Martin, the lens has been focused solely on the until-Saturday-undefeated season of the Kansas State team on the gridiron.

With the national championship in football no longer an option and a basketball game against a marquee opponent approaching, that may change.

However Friday’s game turns out, it will likely shape fans’ and pundits’ expectations and evaluations for the rest of the season.

Much for which to be Thankful

22 Nov

On Nov. 13, when the Kansas State men’s basketball team destroyed Alabama-Huntsville by 61 points, the largest margin in Bramlage Coliseum history, Chargers coach Lennie Acuff said something profound.

“It just shows you that everything you do isn’t based on basketball,” he said, “because it goes from one extreme to the other real quick.”

The night before that 87-26 defeat by the Wildcats, Alabama-Huntsville gutted out a 78-75 nail-biter against North Texas that came down to free throws.

The parallel between what happened to the Chargers between Nov. 12 and Nov. 13 and what happened to the Kansas State football team just a few days later is an easy one to draw.

Last Friday, the Wildcats only need to win out, and they have a clear path to the national championship, which would be the first time ever a Kansas State team would play for the BCS title.

By Saturday night, those hopes were all but dashed after the Wildcats were defeated handily by Baylor, a team that entered the game with a losing record and whose only conference victory came against KU.

So much emphasis is placed on sports these days, and central to that is an emphasis on winning. There is nothing wrong with that. Still, it is important to remember that a W-L record is not what truly defines an individual. Not even close.

Deep down, most people understand that, and it is a testament to coach Bill Snyder and the Kansas State football program that when asked about Thanksgiving on Tuesday afternoon, many players seemed to have a very firm grasp of that reality.

Needless to say, no one mentioned the W-L record.

“These guys are my brothers,” said center B.J. Finney, “and the family that we have here is incredible. I am just thankful again to God that we have been blessed with such good health and few injuries. We have kept a really good head on our shoulders, and I am just thankful for that.”

“It has been an incredible experience,” said kicker Anthony Cantele. “The most important thing to me is the friendships that I have made with these guys along the way. We always talk about family, and this is definitely a family atmosphere. That is never exaggerated. I am incredibly thankful. I could not be more blessed to be in the situation that I am and have these kinds of teammates.”

“It has been a great journey,” said linebacker Arthur Brown. “Just the process of growing together with the team has definitely been something that I will take with me and remember for the rest of my life. It has helped mold me as a person, and I think I will continue to grow and develop from here.”

“It is a special group,” said quarterback Collin Klein. “It is a group that has been through a lot through our time here. We have come a long way, and it is a group that we truly care about each other in a pretty special way as brothers would or family members would. We are still having fun, and that is important.”

Bruceketball Begins

10 Nov

New Kansas State coach Bruce Weber now has three games at Bramlage Coliseum under his belt. Friday night’s 85-52 win over North Dakota was the first official game for him at the helm.

You can read my full recap of that game here, but at the moment I just want to run down a few observations of the team to this point.

1. Kansas State has the makings of an excellent frontcourt. In Thomas Gipson and freshman D.J. Johnson, the Wildcats have strong, powerful guys who have an advantage securing position for rebounds and who can dominate in the paint with their back-to-the-basket moves. In Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz, the Wildcats also have lean, long guys whose presence dissuades teams from even coming in the paint because they can so easily block such shots. Because of their height they are difficult to guard around the basket, and Henriquez has been working on a hook shot that makes him dangerous further away from the hoop too. Those four are going to present a unique challenge for Kansas State’s opponents this year.

2. The play of Angel Rodriguez is going to be so important to this team. The Wildcats could not open up a double-digit lead over North Dakota during the entire first half, much of which Rodriguez was sitting because of foul trouble. When Rodriguez returned after the break, he drained consecutive 3-pointers and slithered through the paint for a layup. Eight straight points. That sequence gave Kansas State momentum and turned the tide of the game. Weber said yesterday that the team goes as the guards go, and Rodriguez is obviously a huge part of that. He has all kinds of potential, but harnessing it consistently is easier said than done. Whether he is able to do so will determine how good these Wildcats can be.

3. The production of Nino Williams has been fascinating to watch. After hardly getting any time under former coach Frank Martin, he looked fantastic in both exhibition games, and he earned his first career start on Friday night against North Dakota. He promptly scored the team’s first points, and he snagged five rebounds as well. Williams may not start throughout the season, but he provides a nice jolt of energy for the Wildcats, so even if he comes off the bench, you can expect him to have a significant role this year.

Health benefits of drinking the purple Kool-Aid

10 Nov

No other team in the country is as good at keeping ahold of the football as the Kansas State Wildcats. (Photo by Shane Keyser, Austin American-Statesman)

Mistake-free football. It’s not a particularly sexy slogan. In fact, it’s kind of boring.

Glitzy or not, the embrace of this mentality gives Kansas State a chance to win every game. I would even say it gives the Wildcats the advantage in every game.

One would be hard-pressed not to pick Kansas State no matter who it plays, simply because the Wildcats so rarely hurt themselves. They perform consistently regardless of who is on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

While researching for the turnover story I wrote this week, I found myself stunned by how excellent Kansas State truly is when it comes to not turning over the football.

I’ll touch on some of the numbers that demonstrate that claim in a moment, but maybe a piece of anecdotal evidence is even more compelling. There was a play during the Texas Tech game that everyone noticed at that instant but which did not receive near the attention it deserved.

On third and 10 on Kansas State’s first drive of the Texas Tech game, Collin Klein had his arm cocked back to throw when a Red Raider stormed in from Klein’s blind side and tackled the quarterback by the wrist of his throwing arm. Sack.

Klein held onto the ball.

I don’t know how. I don’t know if he could tell you how. You can the situation in the photo above, or you can watch the video clip here, at the 13:25 mark, and try to figure it out for yourself.

Maintaining possession never looked so unlikely. The composure and toughness shown by Klein to keep ahold of that football feels indicative of the gritty, determined mindset that coach Bill Snyder has cultivated in this group.

As a result of that emphasis, through nine games the Wildcats have committed only four turnovers _ and just one happened in conference play.

Kansas State is one of just two teams in the nation who can count the number of turnovers it has committed on one hand. The other is unranked Ohio.

 

Mighty Alabama has eight giveaways. Noble Notre Dame has 11. High-flying Oregon has 18.

What makes the difference for the Wildcats? Kansas State puts an emphasis on avoiding and creating turnovers in practice. Coaches instruct defensive players to go all out and try to strip the ball from the offensive starters. Ball carriers go through security drills every single day. There is always someone yelling to keep the ball up high. Putting the ball on the ground results in live practice results in consequences – though players say that doesn’t happen often.

Sure, avoiding turnovers and creating turnovers are only two factors, but they are important ones. They’ve sure made a difference so far, and they will continue to going forward.

Lineup still fluid after second exhibition game

4 Nov

In the words of Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, the Sunday contest against Emporia State was a typical second exhibition game.

While Tuesday’s contest against Washburn had players excited just to play against people other than their own teammates, Sunday’s matchup arrived with less hype, and so the intensity level suffered.

“It’s one o’clock Sunday afternoon, 70 degrees, people are still hanging out from last night’s great football win,” Weber said. “You’ve got to create your own energy.”

That did not happen enough, especially early in the game. Both teams started slow, missing shots, until an 8-0 run by Emporia State gave the Hornets a 19-18 lead with five minutes to play in the first half. Weber called timeout and made some substitutions – including D.J. Johnson and Thomas Gipson in favor of starting forwards Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz.

“I told them, ‘Hey, I’ll try not to sub you on each mistake, but you do two or three mistakes or you don’t give the effort you need, you give me no choice but to make that decision,'” Weber said.

After the timeout, the Wildcats reeled off nine straight points to take a 27-19 lead. That was just the first segment of Kansas State’s 20-4 run the team compiled before halftime.

“Jordan and AD had some easy shots; they just didn’t finish them, and then they didn’t rebound,” Weber said. “These guys came in, [and] we didn’t make those easy shots early with them in, but they got rebounds and made the second attempt, third attempt or got fouled. … I think it was positive how they reacted.”

As with most exhibition, non-conference games, the outcome was a function of play in the paint. The Wildcats snagged 51 rebounds to Emporia State’s 26. They scored 28 points inside to the Hornets’ 8. They earned 21 second-chance points to Emporia State’s 5.

By the end of the game – which got progressively more out of hand as the Wildcats dominated the boards – Johnson had scored a team-high 17 points with 9 rebounds, while Gipson added 12 and 5.

Weber said so far he has kept playing time fairly balanced to see how everyone plays so he can get a lineup set. The underlying message is that the starting rotation is not solid. Anybody has a chance.

“It’s not set,” Weber said. “It could change at halftime. We have competition. I hope they realize that. Our staff is trying to make sure they realize you’ve got to be zipped up and hooked up, ready to go every time. Otherwise, we’ve got somebody else who will take care of business for you.”

On Cloud 9(-0)

4 Nov

Kansas State’s 44-30 victory over Oklahoma State last night was the first in a while.

When the Wildcats beat the Cowboys back in 2006, even the upperclassmen on the current rosters were still in high school. Accordingly, Kansas State was highly motivated – to win, of course, but also to vanquish a team it had not put away for several years.

When players spoke with the media on Tuesday, fullback Braden Wilson said the drought against the Cowboys was indeed something that was discussed.

“Collin said that nobody on our team has beaten Oklahoma State,” Wilson said. “That’s a big deal, especially after the heartbreak of last year. This is a game that we really want – like we really want. We’re serious about it.”

Apparently, what the Wildcats want, they get – and not by accident.

By extending their winning streak to nine games, the Wildcats showed they were serious about much more than avenging last year’s devastating 52-45 loss in Stillwater. Sure, Kansas State is just talking about the next game (and then the next, and then the next). Add all that together, though, and you get the feeling that something very special is possible for this team.

But I digress. Back to the here and now …

***

Obviously the main concern following Saturday’s game is the status of quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Collin Klein. He left the game midway through the third quarter – much earlier than coach Bill Snyder would ever consider it safe to take him out of the game.

Klein sat on the bench and talked to a trainer. His brother, Kyle, sat next to him. Tre Walker and Ethan Douglas came over and prayed with him. Klein watched the rest of the game from the sideline, looking fine but without his helmet. He smiled and chatted with various coaches and players.

Snyder does not discuss injuries, but after the game, he said, “Obviously he was injured or we wouldn’t have taken him out.”

On the one hand, Klein did not appear to be seriously injured. On the other hand, we all know he was hardy enough to have been allowed to play through considerable injuries during last season. Maybe Kansas State is just being more cautious than it was with him last season. Maybe something more is wrong.

Either way, we likely will not know the extent of it until Saturday.

***

With the caveat that Oklahoma State’s quarterbacks are young and relatively inexperienced, the Kansas State secondary looked promising. It gave up too many long passes, but it also intercepted four balls and should have had another three or four.

In particular, defensive back Allen Chapman made a name for himself. He picked off three passes, including one in the Cowboys’ end zone. If that pass had instead been caught by Oklahoma State, it would have put the Cowboys within a touchdown of the Wildcats with several minutes still to play. Chapman returned another of his interceptions 29 yards for a touchdown.

His performance fell short of only that of Kansas State great Jaime Mendez, the Wildcats’ leader in career interceptions and a member of Kansas State’s Ring of Honor. Mendez once intercepted four passes in the course of a single game.

***

Of course, another positive on Saturday came in the form of a 100-yard kickoff return by Tyler Lockett. Looking at Oklahoma State’s stats, I discovered that the Cowboys have actually given up a 100-yard kick return already this season, so they might not be the best competition in this area.

Still, for Lockett to be able to take it from one end zone to the other means that the special teams unit did everything exactly right, and that is impressive. What is more amazing is that Lockett nearly broke another return for a score.

Lockett still gave the Wildcats great field position, but had he gone outside of a block instead of inside it, he might have gotten loose again. Tramaine Thompson recognized what could have been immediately, throwing up his hands right after the play.

The failure to break that return too was maddening, but that the rest of the special teams unit performed so well that the returner would even have the opportunity to take two kickoffs to the house … well, the potential is staggering.

***

As usual, there is plenty on which the Wildcats can still improve. As I mentioned earlier, Oklahoma State got too many long pass plays. In addition to enabling a Kansas State kickoff return for a touchdown, the special teams unit also allowed one by the Cowboys. The list goes on.

Everything taken into account, however, I think it would be crazy to think that the possibility of a visit to Sun Life Stadium is not in Kansas State’s future.

Indeed, even after his team’s defeat, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy had nothing but good to say about the Wildcats.

“They’re a good football team,” Gundy said. “They don’t make mistakes, we all know. They’ve got a very mature quarterback that makes plays, and they could be arguably the best team in the country in special teams.”

The Real Deal

30 Oct

On quizzes in my sports economics class, our teacher gives a bonus point to the student who comes closest to predicting the actual margin of victory for Kansas State’s next game. I always guess low because the Big 12 is good enough that every game makes me a little nervous. I don’t believe in taking wins for granted. Plus, I don’t want to jinx anything.

(For the record, I don’t think jinxes are real, but I am a strong believer in the effects becoming overconfident and losing focus, which tends to happen when you start contemplating how good the team is instead of just preparing for the next obstacle.)

Despite my outward caution, however, I have a good feeling about this team. The players do too.

While they stick faithfully to the “one game at a time” mantra, they know the greatness they are capable of. I saw an example of this on Monday, when my economics professor announced who had won the guess-the-margin-of-victory contest.

The student who received the extra point was a member of the football team. The Friday before the game, he had picked the Wildcats to defeat Texas Tech by 31 points. Kansas State, of course, routed the Red Raiders … by 32 points.

In the past week or so, I’ve read a huge article about Bill Snyder in USA Today, opened my latest issue of Sports Illustrated to see a story featuring the Wildcats as a legitimate national title contender, and watched national journalists visit Manhattan to interview Collin Klein, who is now viewed as the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy.

Maybe it is time to stop being shy about how good Kansas State is. After all, even though rankings are essentially irrelevant, No. 2 in the BCS standings is hardly something to sneeze at.

The best part is that the Wildcats themselves are not worried about any of this. They buy into Snyder’s philosophy, which is that they can control how well they prepare and how well they execute. If they do that, they can win. Whether or not other teams win, whether the BCS committee looks on them favorably or snubs them in favor of a school with a bigger fan base, whether or not national pundits give the team its due … none of that matters. Snyder cannot control that. The players cannot control that. Therefore, those are non-factors.

In a world full of laptops and iPads and televisions and iPods and cell phones, we are used to being distracted. Disciplined is far from our default setting. Completely and totally zeroing in on a solitary task or idea often seems implausible.

Snyder teaches his players to focus. He instructs them in diligence. He trains them to block out distractions. The players have responded well, and with the results (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) their dedication has gotten them so far, it is hard to imagine they would deviate from their trajectory now. More than likely, the players will buckle down and become even more focused.

It certainly helps that the man with perhaps the biggest reason to get sidetracked is the one who is least likely to become so. Even being considered for the most prestigious award a college football player can earn, quarterback and team captain Collin Klein is not the least bit worried about anything but getting ready – and helping his teammates get ready – to win yet another football game.

Leadership like that, in addition to the best coach in the history of college football on the sidelines, has to make you feel good about Kansas State’s chances.

Surely it is too soon for fans to start making plans for Miami. Still, it is hard to ignore the possibility.

Snyder remembers

23 Oct

Every now and again, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder will dodge a question by claiming forgetfulness. Though I’m somewhat skeptical, it might be true that the 73-year-old can no longer recall every detail of every game of the last 20-some years.

What he does remember are people.

On Tuesday I asked Snyder if he remembered a guy by the name of Jaime Mendez, a safety who played four years for the Wildcats beginning in 1990 – the year this senior in college was born. Needless to say, it has been a while since Mendez was on campus.

Except it really hasn’t. Snyder saw Mendez just a couple weeks ago, when the former player stopped by for a visit while in town.

“I remember an awful lot about him,” Snyder said. “He was not only a very talented player for us, came out of Ohio, young guy that just came here and does all the things we like for him to do, played extremely well for us, was a very successful player, is in the Ring of Honor up here, consensus All-American. He moved out to California, in fact married a very successful actress, has started his own business and has done quite well, and I still appreciate him.”

***

Players are not the only ones Snyder appreciates. All coaches credit fans for their support, but Kansas State’s coach does so with unmatched fervency and sincerity.

He talked Tuesday about the fans but also praised the football team’s support staff, naming several individuals representative of everyone inside the program, whose contributions few on the outside ever realize. These are the people who make the road trips go off without a hitch, who make the arrangements so the Wildcats get the consistency prior to each game that Snyder considers so vital.

The coach talked in particular about the journey to West Virginia, which he described as one of the most complex trips to organize. Upon arrival, Kansas State was greeted by Robert Lipson, who has been to every home game and conference road game since 1972.

Lipson might be described as something of an oddball, being so dedicated to the Wildcats that year after year after year he drives to every contest and sleeps in his car when he gets there.

As is evident by the year he began following the team, however, Lipson believed in Kansas State long before anybody else did. He supported the program long before the Wildcats gained national attention, and in fact, he remained a fan even while the program went through one of the most futile stretches in its history.

Snyder has not forgotten that loyalty.

“Who do I see when I get to the hotel? Robert,” Snyder said, then paused. “And everybody laughs. Bottom line is, he has a passion for it, and it means something to him. Young people, all of us, myself included, we need to have a great appreciation for that, someone who shows that kind of passion for what you do and makes the kind of sacrifices. Robert probably has the first car ever made, and it probably is on its last leg, and you can imagine … very meaningful.”

***

People matter to Snyder.

Tuesday might have been the only time I’ve heard him come close to raising his voice, and the brusqueness came in support of one of his players. A reporter asked the coach if quarterback Collin Klein is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. The coach had shot down the question in previous media sessions as an unfair one because Snyder does not watch film on all the other players out there who are being considered for the award. This was his response:

“I think Collin Klein is worthy of anything that he receives,” Snyder said with conviction. “He is an absolutely wonderful young man, a tremendously talented player. I haven’t seen all the people in the country. I can’t do that. If I’m going to vote, I’m going to vote on what I see, and I’ve seen him to be as fine a player as anybody.”

For as much success as he has had on the football field, the lasting legacy of Klein will not be winning the Heisman Trophy or even quarterbacking his team to a national title, if indeed the Wildcats continue their undefeated streak. Klein will be remembered for the person he is and for how he values other people.

For Snyder, it is the same.

The bond between coach and quarterback is often a strong one, but you won’t find many people more united in their values and mission than Bill Snyder and Collin Klein. (Photo from K-State Sports)

Harper describes change in program since Snyder’s return

23 Oct

Kansas State has enjoyed so much success this year and last year that it is easy to forget the depths from which the program has risen since coach Bill Snyder’s return in 2009. Following Ron Prince’s three-year tenure, the team went 6-6 and missed out on a bowl berth. The new staff – led by the legendary Snyder – had many problems to address.

Certainly, the 7-0 record of the Wildcats to this point in time would indicate that those issues have been dealt with.

There are plenty of numbers about time of possession, turnover margin and penalty yardage that speak to the fact that Kansas State is a disciplined group. Kansas State has the fewest penalties of any team in the country (24 total), leads the Big 12 in turnover margin (+12) and ranks in the top of the conference in time of possession.

But on Tuesday, wide receiver Chris Harper took a good amount of time to describe a culture change beyond statistics.

“When [Coach Snyder] first got here, we were terrible,” Harper said. “We sucked, and it was because we didn’t put the work in. Our work ethic sucked, the discipline and all that.”

Suffice it to say that some of the players on the team when Snyder returned did not live up to the high standards Snyder has for his athletes as individuals. Harper said there were some players who “were in trouble” – guys who wouldn’t even think about going to classes or who went out to Aggieville after games and winded up getting arrested.

According to Harper, those are not problems Snyder has to deal with anymore. Besides the expectations of Snyder and his staff, the players in leadership positions – the names of captains Collin Klein, Arthur Brown, B.J. Finney and Ty Zimmerman come to mind just for starters – will not stand for that kind of behavior.

“The program’s shifted,” Harper said. “There’s a total shift now in the discipline and the work ethic  … That comes from internal leadership too. You’re not just going to be held accountable from the coaches. You’re going to be held accountable from the players, and I think that’s something that matters, and that’s something that’s really big.”