PITTSBURGH — At this time — this very moment, it still remains difficult for Kansas State to look toward the future — before, at the very least, reflecting on the past.
“I’m too tied into this team and this game right now to be able to step away and embrace that moment,” K-State coach Frank Martin said following the Wildcats’ season-ending loss to No. 1 seed Syracuse on Saturday. “I know we’re all judged by wins. I judge our team by the way we accept the challenges that basketball, life — everything throws at us. As young as we were, we continued to battle. When you don’t get to coach that same team again, it’s always a difficult moment to separate from that.”
The Wildcats grew up this season, making their fourth NCAA tournament appearance in five seasons. They won 22 games, beat three teams ranked in the top 10, two of which came on the road, and won their opening game in the Big Dance for the fourth straight time.
“We took another step in a positive direction this year,” Martin said. “It’s about always building and moving. Our guys did that this year. I’m sure over the next 48 hours or so I’ll be even prouder of these kids than I am right now.”
K-State battled youth and immaturity at times, and it lost some games it probably shouldn’t have. But the Wildcats showed the resiliency and the mental toughness to bounce back from those defeats.
“We were young,” sophomore guard Will Spradling said. “We had a lot of immature plays — a lot of plays that won’t happen as we mature and get better over the summer and next year.”
And that’s why the optimism for the Wildcats will likely be sky-high heading into next season. Yes, K-State loses fifth-year senior Jamar Samuels, a valuable leader who was second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding this season. Victor Ojeleye, whose leadership during his four years at K-State can’t be talked about enough, has also seen his career come to an end.
But those are the only two pieces K-State loses. The Wildcats will return 86 percent of their scoring, 91 percent of their assists and 80.5 percent of their rebounds from this past season.
Freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez hit a few bumps in the road this season, but his progression over the last couple of months was significant. He played in big games, made clutch shots and passes in several difficult moments where the pressure was immense, and had the ball in his hands late in games. The 5-foot-11 guard averaged 8.3 points and became the first freshman since Steve Henson to lead the Wildcats in assists (101) and steals (41).
Rodney McGruder, who returns for his senior season after averaging 15.8 points per game, proved he could be the Wildcats’ go-to scorer, a strong defender and a leader as well.
Jordan Henriquez, who will also be back for his senior campaign, evolved into a consistent, dominating force down the stretch. Over the Wildcats’ final four games, the 6-foot-11 center averaged 16.8 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and made 59 percent of his shots. Over his last nine games, Henriquez, the school’s all-time and single-season leader in blocked shots, swatted 37 shots.
“That next group of guys in Rodney, Martavious (Irving) and Jordan — their growth as players in our program, their willingness to represent our program —think about those three guys and their performance last year in our last game and think about those three guys and what they’ve done for this team this year,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of growth that you need. All those other guys who were freshmen and sophomores, showing up every day and taking that step, having that will and that fight to grow up in a hurry because it’s what the team needed them to do — it’s been an honor to coach these kids.”
With four starters returning, a top-50 recruit coming in with the arrival of 7-foot center Robert Upshaw and a brand new, state-of-the art practice facility that’s scheduled to be completed in just three months, the future is bright in Manhattan.
“That’s what’s fun,” Martin said. “It’s hard right now in this moment because this team, this season is over. If you look at our program over the last five, six years, guys always take that next step. Every year everyone says ‘oh they’re not going to be any good.’ All of a sudden there’s that one guy that takes that next step.
“I’m excited because we’ve got a core of guys back now. Let’s see who is going to take that next step. Those are the things that are exciting about coaching are when you’re around kids like that. Just understanding you’ve got some winners on your side.”