The following is a story from Thursday's Journal-World special section, 'Sunflower Power,' which previews the three Kansas schools in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Elevated from assistant coach when mentor Bob Huggins bolted for his alma mater West Virginia after spending one year in Manhattan, Frank Martin inherited a Kansas State basketball program that had gone 11 consecutive years without an NCAA Tournament appearance, but had upgraded its recruiting during Huggins’ short stay.
In this, his fifth season on the job, Martin is taking the Wildcats to the NCAA Tourney for the fourth time.
This isn’t Martin’s best team — in 2009-2010, the Wildcats won a program-best 29 games, had an all-time-high No. 2 seed and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. It’s not his worst team —the 2008-2009 Wildcats went 22-12 and made it to the second round of the NIT.
It is Martin’s most unpredictable team, so trying to forecast how it will do in the tournament is little more than a guessing game.
How does one make sense of a team that plays in front of raucous students at Bramlage Coliseum, yet posted the same 5-4 record at home as it did on the road during the Big 12 regular season?
These Wildcats have little in common with the group that sped to the Elite Eight on the strength of guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen. This year, the Wildcats’ backcourt is the primary reason even winning one game will count as a minor upset.
Sophomore Will Spradling, neither as quick nor as strong as most of the guards he is assigned to defend, compensated for those shortcomings early in the season with a soft long-range shooting touch. He’s been mired in a two-month shooting slump.
In the first 14 games, Spradling had a .443 three-point accuracy rate. Since then, he’s made just 25 percent of his three-pointers. He has gone six games in a row without scoring in double figures and is shooting .179 on three-pointers in the past seven games. He has played 32.7 minutes a game during that stretch, so his coach continues to believe in him.
Freshman Angel Rodriguez, handling point-guard duties in the second half of the season, penetrates well and can get hot from outside, but as do most freshmen, he turns the ball over at too high a rate.
Guard Martavious Irving hasn’t developed into a consistent lock-down defender Martin had hoped he would by now and is limited offensively.
Kansas State presents more problems for opponents with its frontcourt than its backcourt.
Junior forward Rodney McGruder (.804 from the line, .390 three-point shooter) leads the team with 15.4 points per game, and senior forward Jamar Samuels (10.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is the only other double-figures scorer.
Junior center Jordan Henriquez’s improved play has led to more minutes for him in recent weeks, and the more he plays, the better K-State defends.
In the past four games, the 6-foot-11 Henriquez has averaged 15.3 points and 3.8 blocked shots.
“I’m not into individual performances, but his growth as a kid, as a player, and his consistency here as of late is awesome,” Martin said. “... For him to play as consistent as he’s played here for the last month of the season, that’s why you go through the process with these kids and you stick with them through good and bad, is so you can see them figure it out. And he’s starting to figure it out. And he’s a heck of a player when he does that.”
Henriquez had 22 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots in an 82-74 loss to Baylor that eliminated the Wildcats (21-10) from the Big 12 tournament. Martin was pleased with the way he played, but blasted the rest of the team for playing selfish defense.
Martin said he’s not concerned about his team’s confidence level.
“I’m not a fan of conference tournaments,” Martin said. “I never have been. I’m ready to go play somebody else. I’m sick and tired of watching Big 12 basketball, to be honest with you. It’s too good.”