Not everyone expected the Kansas State Wildcats (22-11, 10-8) to be much of a contender this season. Kansas State was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 by the coaches before the season and despite finishing close to that, the Wildcats proved to be a much better team in a stacked Big 12 Conference.
Kansas State started the season off with five straight victories before losing a heartbreaker to future conference mate West Virginia in overtime. The Wildcats then responded with a big victory over then-No. 21 Alabama on a neutral floor, winning 71-58. Kansas State also won the Diamond Head Classic, with three straight victories over Southern Illinois, UTEP and Long Beach State. The Wildcats finished the non-conference slate with one loss for the second time under head coach Frank Martin and cracked the national rankings.
Starting conference play was a drag for Kansas State as it has been during all the years since Martin was hired. The Wildcats had a tough draw facing three straight ranked opponents inside the top 15. But after the tough beginning stretch, the Wildcats managed to slug its way through the Big 12 slate and get to 10 conference wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats were playing some of their best basketball as the season started nearing an end, with wins over two top-10 teams on the road back-to-back, and finishing conference play 10-8, locking in a NCAA Tournament bid. Also, as a team, the Wildcats recorded a record of 5-4 against ranked teams, with three of those wins coming against top 10 teams. However, that did little to help the Wildcats advance far in the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas State ended it’s season in the third round of the Big Dance for the second straight year. Without senior Jamar Samuels, the Wildcats failed to execute against the Syracuse zone and lost 75-59. The loss brought head coach Frank Martin’s tournament record to 6-4.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys right next to me and the guys in the locker room,” coach Martin said following their loss to Syracuse. “For a young team, their resolve, their fight, their unwillingness to give in to the difficult moments of the season, give us a chance to continue to grow, is a thing that I will treasure. Like I told them in the locker room, it’s been an honor to coach these kids all year.”
This season, Kansas State had one of the youngest teams during Martin’s tenure and one of the younger in the Big 12. The roster was filled with six freshman and three newcomers. That didn’t stop Kansas State from competing with some of the best and having one of their best defensive years under Martin. As a team, the Wildcats held teams to 64 points per game and 40 percent from the floor. Kansas State was also the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the Big 12 and finished inside the top 15 in the nation with 14.2 offensive boards per outing.
Kansas State was led by junior guard Rodney McGruder, who led the team in scoring and three-point percentage. He was also the team’s second leading rebounder, second in free-throw percentage and second in steals. After the regular season, he was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team and All-Big 12 Defensive Team. The 6-4 guard finished the year averaging 15.9 points and 5.3 rebounds, while scoring in double-figures in all but five games this season. That included a career-high 33 points against Texas. McGruder also scored 30 points on two other occasions, including a 30-point night in the first game of the NCAA Tournament against Southern Miss.
McGruder has consistently improved this season and finished the season on a good note. In the last five games, McGruder averaged 21.8 points, four rebounds and shot 54 percent from the field and 52 percent from three. The junior will go into his senior season with 1,029 points, which ranks 21st in program history.
Senior forward Jamar Samuels was the team’s leading rebounder and second leading scorer. He was unable to participate in the team’s loss against Syracuse due to eligibility issues. According to a report by CBSSports.com, the fifth year senior received a $200 wire transfer from former AAU coach Curtis Malone. Samuels also missed games earlier this year due to a violation of team rules. However, his senior season wasn’t overshadowed by violations.
The 6-7 All-Big 12 Honorable Mention finished his career at Kansas State averaging 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game his senior season. The three-time Big 12 Player of the Week had a total of eight double-doubles and his energy was one the main factors in getting this young team to play inspired basketball. In one of the biggest games, against a potential NBA lottery pick in Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, Samuels posted one of his best performances of the season. He had 20 points on 7-15 shooting and added 12 rebounds while holding Robinson to 10 points on 3-7 shooting, nine rebounds and five turnovers.
Jordan Henriquez came to life late in the season and will certainly go into next year as one of the team’s top players. Henriquez was responsible for six blocks against a great Kansas front court, and also responsible for 22 points and 14 rebounds against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament. In the last game of the year, Henriquez came up big and was a force against No. 1 seed Syracuse. He had 14 points, 17 rebounds, with 11 coming on the offensive end, while adding three assist.
He was a focal point for the late run by the Wildcats and will certainly be a player to watch for Kansas State next year. He finished his junior year averaging 7.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
Newcomers Angel Rodriguez and Thomas Gipson both played big roles this season for Kansas State.
Gipson, the wide-body, 6-7 enforcer inside, finished up his freshman campaign averaging 7.1 points and 4.7 rebounds, while shooting just a shade under 50 percent from the floor. He also had three double-doubles, including a 23 point, 12 rebound game at home against North Florida. The game before against West Virginia, Gipson had 15 points and 10 rebounds, which helped him earn Phillips 66 Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors, becoming the first true freshman since Michael Beasley to earn the award.
Rodriguez, a 5-11 point guard, stepped up mid-season when he was inserted into the starting lineup. The Miami, FL native helped the Wildcats become a dangerous team with his defense and playmaking ability out of the backcourt. Rodriguez started 14 of 17 conference games for the Wildcats and finished eighth in the conference in assist at 3.8, fourth in steals at 1.5 and averaged 8.2 points per game in just 22.4 minutes.
Many other players made big contributions and give Kansas State hope going forward. This young squad will lose two great seniors at the end of the season in Victor Ojeleye and Samuels, but with the returning crop of players, the Wildcats are looking like a top five team in the Big 12 and possible NCAA contender for years to come.