MANHATTAN, Kan. — He was sleepless after Seattle, two parts bruised ribs, one part bruised ego. Rodney McGruder had been rendered invisible against Gonzaga, missing 8-of-9 shots in Kansas State’s 16-point loss to the Bulldogs on Dec. 15 at KeyArena.
The Wildcats star shooter got shoved, scraped and shoved some more, having largely been treated by the ‘Zags the way a 10-year-old with a baseball bat treats a pinata. It was getting to his release. Worse yet, it was getting to his head.
As the K-State offense stalled, the faithful in the Little Apple started to ask, in worried, hushed tones: What on Earth was wrong with Rodney?
Heck, McGruder was wondering the same thing himself.
“Coming out of the Gonzaga game, it was really hard for me to find shots and try to get into a rhythm, things like that,” McGruder told FOXSportsKansas City.com after leading No. 25 K-State to a 73-67 victory over 22nd-ranked Oklahoma State on Saturday. “But you know, I watched films at home of myself, just to try to make reads and see how guys guard (me) and how to set up my cuts better.”
The light came on the week of Dec. 16, give or take a day. McGruder found himself also studying NBA games, his eyes chasing the long-range marksmen — Miami guard Ray Allen in particular.
How did they get free? What worked? And, more importantly, what didn’t?
“So I’ve just been doing a lot of research on the game,” McGruder said.
It’s paid off. In the five games since the 68-52 to Gonzaga last month, the 6-foot-4 senior has averaged 19.8 points and connected on 9-of-23 attempts (39.1 percent) from beyond the arc.
McGruder dropped 28 points on the Cowboys Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum in the Big 12 opener for both schools, a massive game for two of the contenders that figure to chase Kansas in the standings.
“They did what Gonzaga did — they bumped him off of every cut,” coach Bruce Weber said of the Cowboys, who’d limited McGruder to just two points in the first half on 1-of-6 shooting. “He did not react very well to that.
“In the second half, he got moving. Maybe they got tired and were not as physical with him. They started losing him, and maybe our guys did a little better job of finding him.”
Whatever it was, McGruder put the Wildcats on his back coming out of halftime. The lithe senior scored K-State’s first nine points of the second period, including a short follow-up with 15:09 left that gave the hosts their first lead of the half at 39-38.
After the two squads swapped momentum and a few elbows — things were chippy for much of the afternoon — it was McGruder who sealed the deal late as well. The Washington, DC, native broke a 64-all tie with a trey from the top of the arc with 2:15 to go, then extended that cushion to 70-65 with another 3-pointer from the right wing at the 1:40 mark.
“It was not one guy defensively (responsible); it was one great player going off,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “(McGruder) made some great shots, a couple in the last second of the shot clock. He drove it and was able to make some nice floaters. When you start going off on that, everyone starts playing him and then he finds other people. Give him credit; it was more of him scoring than what we did. He just made good shots.”
And if the Wildcats are going to remain within shouting distance of the Big 12 title race, those shots are going to have to keep coming. The ‘Cats are 5-0 when McGruder winds up 50 percent or better from the field, 7-2 when he doesn’t. K-State is 14-2 all time when McGruder scores at least 20 points.
“Him and Will (Spradling) put in the most time shooting; it’s not even close,” Weber said. “We just hoped sometime it was going to kick in. And it was obviously good that it kicked in (Saturday) for Rod.”
It was overdue, too. Until the past few weeks, McGruder, a three-year starter, had proven to be something of an enigma in Weber’s motion offense. After averaging nearly two 3-point makes per game over the last two seasons under then-coach Frank Martin, in his first 10 contests this season, McGruder had managed just one game in which he’d drained multiple treys.
“You know, it takes a while to adjust to it,” McGruder said. “But once you do adjust to it, it’s great. It’s a great offense.”
In Martin’s scheme, McGruder had a set responsibility on any given play, a designated assignment. With Weber’s offense, he noted, it’s more like an option route for a receiver in football, or a quarterback reading the defense before deciding whether or not to pitch.
Where McGruder goes depends on what he sees — or thinks he sees, anyway. Now he’s charged with reacting on the fly and occasionally improvising on the spot.
“Just read and react — that’s mainly what this offense is,” McGruder said. “I just have to make the right cuts, see guys if they’ve stepped up and help on the curl, and things like that.
“It’s like a read-option (in football). It’s not really a set play. You run it, you make reads (based) on how the defense is defending you. It’s like football. It’s different.”
But it’s coming. And as the calendar flips to league play, it’s funny how no one seems to be asking what’s wrong with Rodney anymore. Or K-State, either, come to think of it.