PITTSBURGH — Ever since he arrived at Kansas State, Angel Rodriguez has been compared to someone else.
Some say he is the next Denis Clemente, because both players were born in Puerto Rico and went on to become Wildcat point guards. Others insist he is the next J.J. Barrea, because they share the same body type and were recruited by Frank Martin.
Matt Figger, a K-State assistant coach, thinks both comparisons are off. After working with Rodriguez daily for a full season, he says the 5-foot-10 freshman is in a class of his own. He’s not Clemente, a former K-State standout. He’s not Barrea, a current NBA player. He’s just Rodriguez.
“He’s a great facilitator,” Figger said. “He gets himself and the team going.”
Figger has spent plenty of time reminding Rodriguez of that lately. He wants Rodriguez to use his unique playing style — great speed and intensity — to help break down defenses.
When he takes open shots and makes smart passes, K-State is usually at its best. Playing that way has allowed him to lead the team in assists and steals.
When he tries to create on his own, takes chances and mimics others, the team suffers. He also leads the team with 78 turnovers.
“He tried to be Brett Favre a lot early,” Figger said. “Maybe he saw something, but nobody else did and he made a pass that ended up in a turnover. We just try to tell him, ‘Don’t be Brett Favre. Just be yourself. Hit singles. You don’t have to go for home runs.’ When he calms down and plays within himself that’s all we need.”
Rodriguez hopes to do exactly that today, when he makes his first start in the NCAA Tournament against Southern Mississippi at 11:40 a.m. Not many teams rely on a freshman point guard at this stage. Experience is always preferred in the pressure-packed postseason.
But Rodriguez feels like he has been here before.
“Last year, I wasn’t here yet, but I watched all of Kansas State’s games in the tournament,” Rodriguez said. “I felt like I was a part of it. Every time they won, I was so happy. When they lost, I was heartbroken, because I hate losing. I felt like my season was done.
“I just don’t like losing. I don’t want to go home. I can’t wait to play. I’m going to bring it. I feel pretty confident with my game right now. I’m ready to compete with anybody.”
Rodriguez averaged eight points and 3.2 assists in the regular season. He started the year coming off the bench, but as his game progressed he entered the starting lineup and had several highlight games. He scored 17 points in a win over Southern Illinois, 16 in a win over Texas-El Paso, 15 in a win at Baylor and dished out eight assists in a loss to Iowa State.
But he also had a few forgettable nights. He played so poorly during a home game against Baylor that Martin benched him next time out against Oklahoma. He played 27 scoreless minutes in a loss to Kansas.
He still takes risks, and tries to make the highlight play the way Favre used to when he played quarterback in the NFL. But those instances are becoming rare. And after facing top-flight point guards throughout the Big 12, he’s not going to be surprised by anything in the NCAA Tournament.
“He has matured in a lot of ways,” Figger said. “He just needs to keep his emotions under control. You can’t let one negative play affect the next one. That’s what he was doing early. One bad play led to another. He had games where he played like he was still in high school. Now he’s having games where he is really efficient. That’s the hardest position to play coming in as a freshman, and he’s handled it great.”
That’s why Martin has stuck with him through all the ups and downs.
“As he went through his growing moments, which all freshmen go through, as that early part of the season was taking place, he always stayed the course,” Martin said. “He never came in and hung his head or ever came in and disrespected the decisions that were made the day before.”
Martavious Irving, who lost a spot in the starting lineup to Rodriguez, said his young teammate is no longer a freshman.
“Right now, he’s a sophomore,” Irving said. “He has calmed down and played the way we need him to.”
That means being himself. Not anyone else.