KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Even if it isn’t Bruce Weber’s fault — and the debate raged fast and furious across Twitter this week — it is his problem.
Angel Rodriguez, pretty much the one player who couldn’t leave the Kansas State men’s basketball program, has . . . um, left the Kansas State men’s basketball program. The transfer announcement came during dinner hour in Manhattan, and you could hear the kvetching all the way to Liberal.
“It is important that everyone understands this was a really difficult decision,” Rodriguez, the Wildcats’ starting point guard, said in a prepared statement. “This decision was based entirely on my family and has nothing do with Kansas State, basketball or the coaching staff.
“It’s unfortunate after the year we just had, but I just feel right now this is the best thing for me and my family. Whether it is the right choice or not, family has and always will be first with me.”
If you take the program’s news release at face value, the 5-foot-11 sophomore from Puerto Rico is running toward something, not away. Rodriguez’s mother, Jacqueline, is raising his two younger brothers on her own, some 2,300 miles away. Reportedly, she saw him play in person only once as a collegian, in January. And the carrot that initially lured Angel from south Florida to rural Kansas, former Wildcats coach Frank Martin, has been out of the picture for nearly 13 months.
“After multiple conversations,” said Weber, K-State’s coach of the present, “Angel feels an obligation to be closer to his family.”
While this is the third announced transfer out of Weber’s program in the past five weeks, it’s also the one that cuts the deepest. Rodriguez averaged 11.4 points and 5.2 assists this season as K-State won a share of the Big 12 title and was expected to contend for all-Big 12 honors.
A K-State official told FOX Sports Kansas City that the point guard said he’d wished to be released from his scholarship in order to pursue schools in Florida. Rodriguez prepped at Dr. Krop High School in Miami.
If that, indeed, is the end game, then more power to him. Rodriguez is 20, and a long, long way from home. It happens.
The surprise is that it happened now, and not immediately following Martin’s departure a year ago in March, when many had expected it. The shock is that the point guard seemed to forge a solid relationship, publicly, with Weber and his staff, even bonding closely with assistant Chester Frazier, a former Weber point man himself, over their mutual love of boxing.
And the disappointment, at least on the Little Apple side of things, is twofold. First, Weber’s staff and system made Rodriguez better. He appeared to thrive in K-State’s new motion offense, raising his point production by more than three per contest from 2011-12 and upping his 3-point percentage (.317 to .344), assist count (3.2 to 5.2) and free-throw makes (2.3 to 2.7) along the way. The little guy didn’t just play smart, he played tough, too, gutting through torn ligaments in his left (non-shooting) wrist through the final three weeks of the season.
Second, Angel was supposed to be one of the building blocks for the next phase of Weber’s regime, the bridge between the end of the Martin Era and backcourts to come. With Rodriguez running the show, K-State won a share of its first regular-season league title since 1977. With Rodriguez running the show, the Wildcats likely would have been picked no lower than fourth by the punditry come the fall.
Instead, he finds himself added to a list of significant, painful departures. With no Angel on board and backup combo guard Martavious Irving’s eligibility exhausted, K-State loses 43.8 percent of its assists and 37.8 percent of its 3-point makes from this past winter. That’s on top of already bidding farewell to leading scorer Rodney McGruder (15.6 points, 51 treys) and leading shot-blocker Jordan Henriquez (5.0 points, 1.9 swats per game).
“His personal improvement this past year was obviously a big factor in our run to the Big 12 title,” Weber continued. “However, just like the loss of our three seniors, this will be another opportunity for someone else to step up.”
Maybe that someone is incoming freshman guard Nigel Johnson, a 6-foot-1 sharpshooter out of D.C. Maybe it’s Will Spradling. We just don’t know. And that’s the part that really drives Aggieville bonkers: What was one of the Big 12’s assured guard units a week ago now portends as one of the league’s biggest question marks.
Plus, Rodriguez follows freshman guard Michael Orris, another option at the point, and sophomore forward Adrian Diaz in the Exit Stage Left Club.
Plus, La Salle. Oy vey.
For Weber, these are not helpful trends. At all. It’s another round of public-relations demerits, eating away at the goodwill earned over a remarkable run to a Big 12 crown. The man was hired under something of a cloud of disappointment and suspect feelings, turned a corner with the fan base following a massive December upset of Florida, and built up street cred in Riley County, slowly, week by week.
While Rodriguez’s departure doesn’t completely erase five months of progress it’s got the doubters out in force again, pointing fingers and accusing Weber of riding other coaches’ coattails to the winner’s circle. Rome isn’t burning, not by any stretch of the imagination, but the faithful can’t help but notice something that smells an awful lot like smoke.