By Mark Janssen
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Rodney McGruder.
Name an MVP of K-State's first 16 games to the season and it's hard to argue with No. 22, Rodney McGruder. That would have been true prior to Saturday's 76-62 loss at Oklahoma State, and even in that defeat, it would have been true afterward as the 6-foot-5 sophomore was the Wildcats' lone bright spot.
McGruder tallied 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, which included three 3-balls. He also led the team in rebounds with six, which matched his season average, and committed just one of K-State's 21 turnovers.
"Rodney plays with tremendous energy," said Kansas State coach Frank Martin. "He takes pride in his jump shot, and he works on it. The team works hard at screening for him, which means they trust that he can score."
Heading into tonight's tipoff at 8 against 12-4 Colorado in Bramlage Coliseum on ESPNU, McGruder has averaged nearly 16 points and 7 rebounds in the last five games against UNLV, UMKC, North Florida, Savannah State and Oklahoma State.
"I'm pleased," the humble Washington D.C., native said of his play, which has vastly improved over last year's averages of 3.9 points and 2.8 rebounds. "I'm most pleased with my rebounding and being able to help the bigs out. I take pride in rebounding. It can be tough in there for the bigs, so the rest of us need to be willing to chip in."
From a guard position, McGruder leads the team in rebounding at 6.5 per game, and has been the team leader seven times through the first 16 games.
"Rodney has been a star for us," admitted teammate Jacob Pullen. "He's been playing a complete game."
That complete game has included leadership, which McGruder admits doesn't come easily.
"A couple of the guys talked to me and encouraged me to step up," said McGruder. "Especially with Jake and Curtis (Kelly) out (with suspension), I've tried to step up and be a spoken leader."
McGruder added of his overall game, "I'm just playing with more focus and I know what tough games are like. I know how to practice and prepare for the physicality of what games like Duke and Florida, and the Big 12 will bring."
While K-State started the year at No. 3 in the nation after last year's Elite Eight run into the NCAA Tournament, it has fallen to No. 21 with its record of 12-4.
"I don't think we've lost our luster at all," said McGruder. "We're continuing to work hard and we're taking it a game at a time. It's not like we're letting teams slip by us because we're looking down the road.
"People remember what we did last year. We've had a target on our back, and will continue to carry that target," McGruder said. "We beat a lot of teams in the Big 12 last year and they're going to want to get us back. We just have to be ready, and I know we will be."
CU is one of those teams as the Buffs lost to the Wildcats 68-51 in Manhattan, and 87-81 in Boulder.
In K-State's four losses this year, it has averaged just 58 points on a chilly 38 percent shooting overall, 21 percent from 3-point range, and having at least 21 turnovers in three of the four games against Duke, Florida, UNLV and Oklahoma State.
In addition, the 'Cats have been out-scored by an average of 40-29 in the collective second halves of those four games.
Who to Watch? No. 10 Burks, No. 11 Higgins
The Buffs are galloping, to say the least. Being 12-4 into mid-January has been unheard of in recent years, but that's exactly where first-year coach Tad Boyle has his CU team with the losses coming from an interesting collection of teams - Georgia, San Francisco, Harvard and New Mexico.
With a 3-0 record in the month of January for the first time since the 1996-97 season, CU will be trying to break a nine-game losing streak to K-State that dates back to the 2006 season. The Buffs last win in Manhattan was in 2005.
Saturday, CU scored its first win over a ranked team since the 2003 season when it defeated No. 8 Missouri, 89-76, in Boulder. CU officials were so proud of the win they've already offering a DVD on the victory.
The win also gave CU a 1-0 start to a Big 12 season for the first time in 14 years.
CU is on a five-game win streak primarily due to its offense of 85.1 points per game, which ranks second in the Big 12. The Buffs have shot at least 47 percent from the field during those games.
The Buffs have the top 1-2 scoring punch in the league with 6-foot-5 Alex Burks (20.1) and 6-6 Cory Higgins (16.7), who is averaging nearly 37 points between them.
Burks is this week's Big 12 Player of the Week after his 36-point effort on 12-of-19 shooting against the Tigers.
"When the ball is in his hands, as a coach, you always think something good is going to happen. He can make plays for himself because he's got great basketball instincts," said Boyle. "But what also makes him special is that he can make plays for others, and that's what makes him scary good. We want him to pick his spots and know when to make plays for himself and when to make plays for his teammates."
Frank Martin is just as impressed with the Grandview, Mo., product.
"I thought he was a big-time player when I watched him in high school," Martin said. "He had tremendous ball skills and was unbelievable at putting the ball in the hole in various ways. But at the time he was 6-3; I didn't know he would be 6-6 or 6-7, but in skill, I thought he was very, very good."
On Burks' resume this year is that 20.1 scoring average that ranks second in the Big 12, on 51 percent shooting, which ranks sixth, and 87 percent free throwing, which ranks sixth.
Higgins' average ranks eighth in the league on 44 percent accuracy and an amazing .897 from the line on 78-of-87 shooting.
As a team, CU nets 78 percent from the foul line to lead the Big 12, while K-State is at 58 percent to rank last.
Also don't forget Levi Nutson, who hits 50 percent of his 3-point attempts, and Andre Roberson, who is one of the Big 12's leading rebounders at 7.4 per game.
In No. 21 K-State, Colorado will be trying for its first road win against a ranked team since defeating Texas Tech on Jan. 11, 1997.
Two of the Top 30
On the Bramlage floor tonight will be two of the Top 30 finalists for the John Wooden Award. On the list are K-State's Jacob Pullen and CU's Alec Burks.
Also from the Big 12 on the listing are LaceDarius Dunn of Baylor, Marcus Morris of Kansas, Marcus Denmon of Missouri and Jordan Hamilton of Texas.