MANHATTAN — Rodney McGruder has played in plenty of homecoming games.
The Kansas State senior guard went to Puerto Rico with Denis Clemente and Luis Colon when he was a freshman. He played in Chicago with Jacob Pullen as a sophomore. And he played alongside Omari Lawrence, Jordan Henriquez and Shane Southwell two weeks ago in New York.
He helped all of them win in front of friends and family. Now it’s their turn to return the favor.
The focus will be on McGruder on Saturday when the Wildcats take on George Washington at 1:30 at Charles E. Smith Center. He is from Washington DC, and will play in front of more than 60 familiar faces. His parents regularly watch him play in Manhattan, but his friends haven’t watched him live since high school.
“It’s just exciting,” McGruder said. “They will finally get the chance to see me play college basketball.”
They will also get to see him deal with pressure. Few K-State players have shined in their homecoming games. Pullen’s parents invited so many people that they said it felt like they were planning a wedding, but the game was hardly a celebration. K-State struggled early before surviving for a 68-60 victory. And Henriquez was quiet in two games at Madison Square Garden.
Sometimes, it’s easier to play with your friends watching on TV. But McGruder isn’t worried.
“They have been watching me play all my life,” McGruder said, “coming to high school games and AAU tournaments, so there is no pressure at all. I just need to go out there and do the things I’m capable of.”
That’s all K-State basketball coach Bruce Weber is asking for.
“I just hope he can relax and come and play and let the game come and worry about the most important thing – us winning,’ Weber said. “He’s the face of the program. He’s the guy on the front of the poster. He’s our go-to guy. You need your best players to play well.
“Going home, that is going to help him confidence-wise. If he plays well that is going to make us better, there is no doubt.”
McGruder has gotten off to a slow start in his first few games under Weber. He is still leading the team in scoring with 12.6 points, but his production is down from his junior year
Some of that is due to K-State’s schedule. Outside of a loss to No. 3 Michigan, the Wildcats haven’t played a name opponent and have won the majority of their games by wide margins. Weber doesn’t feel comfortable playing McGruder 30+ minutes in those situations, but he is the type of player who thrives on extended playing time.
That was noticeable when he took a more active role in K-State’s past two games.
“Last two weeks he has been the best player on the court in practice,” Weber said. “That’s good. He wasn’t always earlier. He is feeling more confident.”
Will that confidence translate into a quality performance against George Washington, an Atlantic 10 opponent, in K-State’s first true road game?
McGruder’s teammates are ready to do all they can to make sure it does.
“It’s important for everybody to get a victory, but it’s really important for Rodney,” forward Thomas Gipson said. “He’s in D.C., and he doesn’t get games like this often. This is his last game playing in front of his family. We need to come out and play for him and play for everybody.”