|Rodney McGruder, left, is K-State's best player but hasn't yet fully jelled to new coach Bruce Weber's system. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- If your team loses a game and your best player doesn't look like your best player until that game is out of reach -- on the wrong end of a blowout -- that's unsettling.
Throw in the fact said player is in his final year and must play for a new coach, and his team is certainly not among the very best in its conference, let alone a sure thing for the NCAA tournament and, yeah, you get the idea.
Six games into Bruce Weber's tenure with Kansas State, Rodney McGruder hasn't shown his streak from the past two years. McGruder was a unanimous selection for Big 12 First Team in the preseason, but he's averaging 11 points and two assists per game, in addition to shooting close to 35 percent. If you're wondering: no, it's not foul trouble. If anything, McGruder is allergic to them. He hasn't committed more than one hack in a game yet.
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Reality is, K-State has had an assembly line of really easy opponents, yet McGruder hasn't been able to exude authority, let alone dominance. That's unusual for players picked to be the best in their league. If he's not yet been good in the easy games, should we expect him to exceed that in the tough ones? In the larger sense, yes. Eventually, yes. Within the next few weeks, not at all.
This isn't a crisis at this point, but it is worth bringing up, specifically in the wake of K-State's 71-57 NIT title game loss to No. 4 Michigan on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. It was McGruder's first game over 30 minutes this season (32), but arguably his least effective. He didn't score a field goal until 9:43 remained, and his only two points prior to that came off a couple of foul shots in the first half.
"First, they [Michigan] did a good job on their ball screens, they kept us out of transition, and they switched on a lot of stuff to stop [McGruder]," Weber said. "Then, there's a [lot of reads] we need to learn and we're not at that point yet."
Absolutely: Michigan looked damn good. But K-State looked like it didn't even deserve to be on the floor with the Wolverines, mainly because McGruder was as marginalized as I can ever recall him against a good opponent. If you see the final stat line you might think he did OK in trying to carry his team, but the majority of his 16 points and seven rebounds came with less than nine minutes to go, when K-State was more than 20 points down, and McGruder needed 6-of-14 shots to eventually lead his team in scoring for the second time this season.
"He cares so much and wants to do so well. I think he was a little bit nervous, a little tonight," Weber said. "I've only known him now six months, but you can't have a better kid. He worries, he works at it, but maybe at the end there he let loose."
At halftime, McGruder had put up just two shots and looked about as invisible as any team's best player could. I asked McGruder about his struggles tonight and overall tempered start to the year.
"I've been trying to get teammates involved and trying to execute the plays coach called," McGruder said. "The offense this year is constant movement, and with [former coach]Frank [Martin] it was more patience and picking our reads. There were times when screens were set for me, whereas this year it's pin-downs and flares. Before, it was pro-style cuts. You have to adjust to it."
This handcuffed run of games isn't all on Weber and the transition. McGruder's ability has seemed ... off so far this season. It's partly the scheme, but also Weber's inclination to get a lot of guys looks and minutes against weaker competition. Sure, why not experiment when you've got the chance? At some point soon, McGruder has got to be the clear-cut alpha, though.
"Coach wants depth to be a key," McGruder said. "He wants to give everyone an opportunity to get in there and make plays. ... I'm the leader of this team and I thrive off that."
Weber (who is now 10-8 lifetime against Michigan) has a team that's capable of making the NCAAs this year, but it's hard to figure how it will do that if its best player is put on a leash and not yet able to successfully flourish in the freelance of a new offensive program. I must note that K-State is off to a good start overall this year; this loss to the Wolverines was just the first of the season. On the flip side, in the first real test, on a neutral court, the Wildcats were nowhere near Michigan's caliber. On Friday it only committed six turnovers -- but not turning it over doesn't matter much when the shots aren't falling and your best player is picking up his points in garbage time. Plus, every game this season K-State has failed to shoot better than 37 percent from the field.
"We need to believe in coach, to execute the plays he calls," McGruder said. "This is new to us, but that's no excuse."
We should all be a ways off from worrying about Kansas State under Weber's regime, but with December approaching, it's McGruder -- not Angel Rodriguez or Will Spradling or Jordan Heriquez or even Weber -- who needs to be at the controls of this team in its transitional year from Martin's assemblage to Weber's future.