K-State's McGruder finds his stroke

The speech Kansas State coach Bruce Weber delivered to struggling guard Rodney McGruder during halftime of Saturday’s 73-67 victory over Oklahoma State didn’t take long to deliver.

In fact, it was only one word.

“Relax!” Weber said. “I just told him to relax.”

It’s a plea Weber has been making to his star senior all season. Finally -- when it mattered more than ever in the Wildcats’ Big 12 opener -- McGruder took his coach’s advice and turned in one of the most impressive showings of his career.

McGruder scored a game-high 28 points to propel No. 25 Kansas State past the No. 22 Cowboys on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum. All but two of McGruder's points came after intermission, when his team trailed by two.

“Early in the year, he was just thinking way too much,” Weber said by phone an hour after the game. “Rodney worries about everything. In the second half, he finally went out there and took a deep breath and let the game come to him.

“He was in a zone today, without question.”

If he continues to play at or even near the level he displayed Saturday, McGruder will easily be one of the top three or four players in the Big 12. And Kansas State will be among the top two or three teams.

That’s how important McGruder is to the Wildcats.

Kansas State has a solid cast of complementary players who have learned to embrace rebounding and playing defense. McGruder is the only potential star, especially on offense.

Perhaps that’s why he was feeling so much pressure during the first six weeks of the season.

“It wasn’t pressure from anyone on the outside,” McGruder said. “It was pressure I was putting on myself. I just want my team to do good. I want to do everything I can to help in every aspect so we can be as successful as we can possibly be.”

Success isn’t anything new to McGruder, a third-year starter who averaged 15.8 points for last season's NCAA tournament team. But McGruder’s scoring average has dropped to 13.7 points this season, and he is shooting just 41 percent from the field compared to 46.3 percent as a junior.

McGruder had connected on just 25 percent of his attempts from beyond the 3-point arc before Saturday, when he found his stroke against one of the conference’s top teams.

McGruder’s biggest shot was a 3-pointer with 2:14 remaining that gave K-State a 67-64 lead. Cowboys guard Marcus Smart split a pair of free throws on the other end to make it 67-65 before McGruder countered with another 3-pointer that made it 70-65 at the 1:43 mark.

Oklahoma State never threatened again.

The Cowboys, which lost by one to Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve in Stillwater, fell to 10-3 overall and 0-1 in the Big 12. Kansas State improved to 12-2 and 1-0. The Wildcats’ only losses are against No. 2 Michigan and 10th-ranked Gonzaga, and they own a victory over No. 13 Florida.

“They’re good," Weber said of Oklahoma State. “They’re a legit top-25 team. I don’t know if they’re quite Florida or Michigan, but they’re not much further behind.

“Smart and Markel Brown are so good. They have so many offensive weapons, and they’re guarding so much better than they did a year ago. It’s a good start for us.”

Smart had 25 points Saturday while Brown added 19. Nino Williams scored 17 off the bench for Kansas State, which plays its next two games on the road.

The Wildcats will be at West Virginia next Saturday, then they travel to Fort Worth on Jan. 16 for a tilt with Big 12 bottom-feeder TCU.

“Kansas is very good, no doubt about that,” Weber said, “but our league has a lot of good balance after that. We’re going to have to fight and grind and find a way to win close games. It’s going to be like this all season.”

McGruder, who earned all-league honors as a junior, said he hopes Saturday’s victory is the start of something great.

“It definitely shows us how good we can really be,” McGruder said. “But if we start thinking we’re too good, it could really hurt us.

“I would never underestimate anyone in the Big 12. You’ve got to be prepared every night. You’ve got to go hard every night. In conference play, guys step up and start doing things that they maybe didn’t do in the nonconference.”

McGruder -- and a group of dejected Oklahoma State Cowboys -- can certainly attest to that.