The last time I checked in on Kansas State basketball, Rodney McGruder wasn't doing so well. That's probably an understatement, considering he was shooting an ice
cole cold 22.6% from 3-point range and really just getting most of his points on offense from being a ridiculous athlete, rather than any sort of shooting talent.
I doubt I need to tell many of you that's changed considerably since halftime of the Oklahoma State game, when Rod drank some magic water, ate some spinach, and came out of the locker room a completely different player. Since that moment, he's 9 of 17 from 3-point range and largely looking like the McGruder of old, in spite of a not quite as good performance at Huggy Bear's lair.
Obviously, it's dangerous to take too much from a small sample size of three games. But there are several reasons I think it's OK to get a little more excited about this recent transformation than you would with some other players.
First of all, he's done it before. Last season he went from 12.5 points per game and 31.5% from 3 to nearly 18 ppg and 42.6% from 3 the rest of the way. It was pretty incredible watching him finally prove he had those leadership qualities many of us thought he might be lacking.
Another difference is simply his shot selection. A few short weeks ago, you simply wouldn't have seen McGruder stepping up and taking a guarded three like the one he buried in the face of the TCU defense in the second half last night. Whether it's confidence, encouragement from coaches or teammates, or a little bit of both, it's obvious he's capable of doing a lot more when he's in this kind of mode.
Naturally, the analysts, such as the awful one announcing last night's game for ESPNU want to find a nice, easy solution, so they say it's just a matter of McGruder finally understanding how he's supposed to move in Bruce Weber's new offense. I suppose there's probably a little truth to that, but let's be careful about giving that theory too much credit.
Not only is it a little insulting to McGruder to suggest it would take him three months to become comfortable in an offense, but let's be honest here, he's getting a lot of the same shots. It's just a matter of him having that extra spring in his step, or confidence, or whatever that seems to have returned him to form.
That little runner in the lane that he barely misses when he's on simply wasn't going down early in the season. Towards the end of nonconference especially, some good screens were giving McGruder some great looks, and the shots were still inexplicably clanging off the rim. I remember, because I was really upset about it.
The only thing I really don't understand about Big 12 McGruder is that he's only 1-4 from the free throw line, which is bizarre less because of the awful % than the extremely low number of chances. This is a guy that finished second behind Jamar Samuels with 121 free throws (almost 4 per game) last year, so it's kind of shocking to see him with only 37 through 16 games.
Hopefully that will improve, and another great Big 12 season could still earn him First Team All-Conference honors, thanks to his preseason recognition and how down the league is. We all said at the beginning of the year that this team will go as far as Rod can take it, and that hasn't changed.
Sure, Shane Southwell's emergence as an improved scorer and the games where JO decides to play are nice, but KSU doesn't beat Oklahoma State without Rodney McGruder playing well. The fact that he was superhuman made up for an awful half from everyone else.
This team could probably finish 4th or 5th with the Rod we saw in nonconference play. With the one we've seen so far, they're the second-best team in the Big 12, and taking down Kansas isn't completely out of the question if the Jayhawks would just stop getting so lucky and banking in game-tying threes at the buzzer.
Of course, this team should be experienced enough to know that it can't afford to look ahead to next Tuesday's game with Lon Kruger and the Sooners coming to town. We all remembered what happened last season, and this OU team is probably better than that one.
Comfortable wins against Texas A&M (neutral court) and Oklahoma State (home) tell us they must be taken seriously, no matter how many losses they have to Stephen F. Austin. Plus, K-State just seems to have a history of bad luck against the Sooners, including the game in 2005 that still causes me pain because I was totally ready to rush the court with the rest of the student section before Drew Lavender hit the most ridiculous shot of his life.
But that was the past, so this year's Wildcats need to worry about the deadly mid-range game of Romero Osby, which seems to have gotten even better this year. Steven Pledger is the only other guy averaging double figures, and he's going to do most of his damage from the perimeter.
Those are far from the Sooners' only two offensive weapons, though, and they've got two new foreign guys who can play a little bit. Junior transfer Amath M'Baye (from France via Wyoming) can do some damage inside, and freshman Buddy Hield (from the Bahamas [via Wichita, as noted by Jordan Esco]) serves as a solid slasher who is also not afraid to shoot the 3.
When Gonzaga played OU on the second stop of its Big 12 Destruction Tour earlier this season, the Zags absolutely annihilated the Sooners by overpowering them inside and putting plenty of pressure on OU's offense. K-State doesn't have the athletes or especially the true post men of Gonzaga, but they'll likely want to attack Oklahoma.
This team does take care of the ball very well (#1 in the Big 12 in turnover margin) so you've got to pick your spots defensively, but when you can get a hand in their face they don't have a lot of outstanding shooters. It would be great to get the crowd going early at Bramlage, though that didn't exactly work in a game where K-State led much of the time last year.
Basically, I really want to see K-State and Kansas meet as the Big 12's last two undefeateds next Tuesday, and I'm going to be extremely upset if Lon Kruger ruins that dream (admittedly, it would be funny if Texas beat Kansas, but let's be real). Also, KSU hasn't won four in a row to start Big 12 play since 2008. Let's do this.