Originally posted on Fox Sports Kansas City  |  Last updated 1/10/12
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- There was a moment last spring when Kansas State junior center Jordan Henriquez watched Rodney McGruder emerge. Shortly into the offseason, Henriquez and McGruder worked out together in open-gym sessions. The Wildcats were a brief time removed from a 23-11 season that ended with a loss to Wisconsin in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The campaign had continued the program's recent success -- Kansas State earned its fifth straight 20-plus victory season and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years -- but the loss of senior guard Jacob Pullen and his team-high 20.2 points per game meant the departure of a leader. Henriquez watched McGruder on the court in the practice sessions. The lanky 6-foot-4, 205-pound Washington, D.C., native sprinted the floor with confidence during three-on-three and five-on-five drills. As McGruder spoke with teammates, Henriquez noticed the rising junior guard become more vocal than past years. Then and there, Henriquez knew an identity for the winter had begun to form. "That was something I had to work on," McGruder said. "There were parts of my game that I knew I had to improve so I can incorporate that into my game -- being a leader and taking control. It is something I really had to work on over time." McGruder's work has made him the Wildcats' top offensive threat through their early schedule. He leads the Wildcats by averaging 13.2 points per game, and he scored a game-high 20 to help No. 18 Kansas State give No. 9 Missouri its first loss Saturday. Over time, he has embraced his role as one of the Wildcats' emerging leaders. Henriquez's observation in the spring was part of McGruder's commitment. A year after averaging 11.1 points per game in 34 starts, McGruder says he has made it his focus to attack defenses with more aggression this season. Early on, his mind-set has produced results. McGruder began the year with double-digit scoring efforts against Charleston Southern (20 points), Loyola (Ill.) (14) and Maryland-Eastern Shore (11). He has had four games of at least 20 points -- including a season-high 28 against Long Beach State. "From the moment we're on the court to the moment we're off the court, nothing changes," said Henriquez, who is averaging 7.6 points per game. "Now, he has stepped up as a junior, and he has made it known that he is our leader on the floor." The development of that leadership will be key to any late-season run that Kansas State might experience this season. McGruder's performance Saturday in helping the Wildcats rout the Tigers was proof that Kansas State must be included in the discussion when considering the Big 12's elite. Pullen's absence will be hard to overcome if the Wildcats want to reach their fourth NCAA tournament under Martin and advance further than they did last season. However, McGruder's production is a sign that Kansas State has evolved. He will receive another chance to establish himself as one of the Big 12's rising players Tuesday. The Wildcats close their three-game gauntlet to open conference play by hosting Baylor. They already split games against No. 10 Kansas and Missouri. When facing those tests, Martin was aware of McGruder's importance to the Wildcats' chemistry. As a result, the fifth-year coach is aggressive with his leader: There have been moments when Martin has approached McGruder after mistakes by the player and said, "Hey, I thought you said this is what you were about. Are you going to let this happen?" Such exchanges, though, are a sign of the coach's respect for McGruder. Without hesitation, Martin considers McGruder a focal point of the Wildcats' ambitions this season. In past years, Martin has seen some players shy away from a prominent role. However, he has noticed McGruder try to take on greater responsibility to follow a legacy left by Pullen, Bill Walker, Michael Beasley and others who turned Kansas State into a Big 12 contender after the program was dormant for a decade. "There are players who don't want that job," Martin said. "I can work with somebody who doesn't want that job every day and every night. They're not going to do it. They're going to run away from that. "You've got to be who you are. Rodney wants to be that. No one assigned him. When he's not handling it right, I sit on him. I do that to help him grow into that job. He's got to figure that out." Still, McGruder's role will require an adjustment. He has not served as the face of a team since he played at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., early in his prep career. He is prepared for the responsibility after watching elite talent compete before him, though, having played on the same AAU squad -- the D.C. Assault -- that produced Beasley and current Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuels. McGruder's soft-spoken demeanor means his play -- not his words -- will create an impression as he and Kansas State move through the Big 12. Both remain in transition: McGruder is growing as a leader at the same time the Wildcats try to discover what life will be like without Pullen. Yet Martin is confident that the Wildcats will benefit when the guard matures into the role. Last spring, McGruder started to emerge. With him, so has Kansas State with a new star.
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