Jellison: Wildcats got here together

By Joel Jellison

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bruce Weber doesn’t address it often, but when asked about it Thursday at the Sprint Center, the Kansas State coach answered.

It was just a year ago when former K-State coach Frank Martin was sitting at a similar podium answering questions about his Wildcats.

Oh, how things have changed in a year. Martin is gone, Weber is here and the Wildcats are back in the NCAA tournament with the best record they’ve had since Martin’s 2009-10 squad that made the Elite Eight.

When Weber was asked what the former coach had done at K-State, and what he left behind, the new coach said everything seemed to come together perfectly this year.

“Appreciate what he did here,” he said. “He reenergized the program. Coach (Bob Huggins) started it — he kept it going. (Martin) set a culture of toughness, defense, rebounding, and we were very fortunate to be able to take over a program that had a good culture. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect at the end, but there were still some good pieces in place. We were able to kind of take it over, tweak a few things, have a great season.

“Change is hard, change is hard on everybody. I know it was hard on us, I know it was real hard on them. Slowly, but surely, it all kind of came together.”

And it all came together because the Wildcats seem to work together as good as any other team in the country.

The Wildcats’ 16 assists per game are 13th-best in the nation. K-State is 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.38.

Leading that charge has been point guard Angel Rodriguez, who ranks among the Top 50 nationally with 5.3 assists per game, and a 2.25 assist-to-turnover ratio.

The sophomore said it all comes down to the comfort level of the team and the chemistry it has developed.

“We have great pieces,” he said. “Everybody has tremendous trust in each other and we feel comfortable about playing with each other and giving the ball to each other — just to let each other make a play.”

Much of the chemistry and bond developed back in August when the team traveled to Brazil. With a new coach, new staff and a new offensive system, the Wildcats had the chance to work out some of the kinks against professional teams. It was also a chance for the Wildcats to get to know their new coach — perhaps the most important aspect of the entire trip.

And somehow, it all just started to click. Rodney McGruder bought into the changes early on. Then others began to follow.

It was evident on the court this season, as the Wildcats seemingly found a new scorer every night. Points came from players that weren’t known as scorers like Nino Williams and Shane Southwell.

And then defensive-minded players like Martavious Irving lifted the team off the bench.

While McGruder was the focus of the offense, and the face of the program, other guys started to show that K-State is far from a one-man team.

“When you have seven guys that can, any given day, lead us in scoring, it’s big,” Southwell said. “We’re not dependent on one player on this team.”

The Wildcats are a family, focused on winning one game at a time — thanks to a little speech from K-State football coach Bill Snyder.

And they’re 8-2 since then — as K-State opened the NCAA tournament today against La Salle at the Sprint Center.

“I feel like this year the team overall has done a tremendous job of just trying to focus on the next game and being 1-0, like Coach Snyder told us,” Rodriguez said. “As long as we do that, we focus on the next game, the chance of us winning is going to be higher.”

The Wildcats haven’t lost a game they were supposed to win this season. But at the same time, K-State is still searching for another win over a team it really wasn’t supposed to beat. Not since Dec. 22, when the Wildcats knocked off Florida at the Sprint Center, have they done that.

Rodriguez said this is the time of year you have to play your best if you want to keep playing — that means winning games you may not be expected to win.

“There’s another level,” he said. “Playing against the best of the best in this tournament, we definitely have to be more focused, but continue to do what you have done the whole season to have some success.”

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