MANHATTAN — When Angel Rodriguez left his home in Puerto Rico to pursue a college basketball career in Miami, he did so knowing he would only get to see his family sporadically.
When he started playing for Kansas State, the distance between them grew so large that he worried his mother would never be able to attend a game at Bramlage Coliseum.
So you can understand how giddy Rodriguez was when Jacqueline Tricoche, the woman he describes as his best friend, arrived in Manhattan two weeks ago for an extended stay.
Rodriguez took his mother everywhere. They went out to eat, she cooked for him, he invited her to all of his practices and she watched him play four games. In between, they talked — in Spanish — for hours.
“(I am) closer (with her) than anybody else I could ever think of, because my dad passed away when I was 2,” Rodriguez said. “She’s not just a mom. She was a mom, a father, a friend. I can really say I can talk to her about anything without any exceptions.
“Sometimes I talk to her like she’s my friend. Our relationship is so special that I don’t have to hold myself back. If a cuss word comes out it doesn’t matter, because we have so much respect for each other and feel comfortable around each other.”
That comfort level has extended to the basketball court. Rodriguez has been at his best with his mother looking on.
The turnovers, fouls and poor decisions that have held him back are beginning to fade, and he is spreading the ball around for assists. In his last five games, the sophomore point guard has dished out 34 assists while committing four turnovers, a ratio so strong that coach Bruce Weber thinks he is ready to expand his game.
“That’s what point guards are supposed to do,” Weber said. “He’s supposed to start our pressure on defense, which he creates havoc for guards, and then be the guy that makes the great decisions on offense. Now, if we can get him shooting the ball well, that would add it all together."
Rodriguez, who ranks fourth in the Big 12 at 5.1 assists, was sitting next to Weber as he made that comment following an eight-assist game against Texas on Wednesday. At first he chuckled, but he quickly became serious once his coach’s words sunk in.
In his last five games he’s 15 of 51 from the field and 4 of 21 from three.
“That’s definitely the one thing I feel like I am missing,” Rodriguez said. “(Wednesday) felt better, even though it didn’t go in. The way I was shooting, it felt better. When I start making shots, it will make it a lot easier for me and my teammates. That is going to be big-time.”
A higher shooting percentage would make Rodriguez a complete player. He still takes the occasional ill-advised shot and his aggressive defense often results in unnecessary fouls that limit his playing time (24.6 minutes), the good stuff is starting to overshadow the bad.
He is making smarter decisions and helping K-State’s offense in ways that go beyond his shot-making ability. He credits his teammates.
“The guys made it easier for me, because they are making shots,” Rodriguez said. “So my job is to run the team more than scoring, especially when Rodney (McGruder) and Will (Spradling) are such great shooters. With them making shots, all I’ve got to worry about is getting by my man. Then I can give it to them wide open, because their man is going to help or I can go to the rim and make a play.”
When his bad play overshadowed the good, the game seemed more complicated.
“The way I play, I try to stay aggressive,” Rodriguez said. “The key for me is staying under control.”
Rodriguez was so effective with ball distribution against Texas that he helped K-State score 83 points in an easy victory despite McGruder and Spradling, who lead the Wildcats in minutes, missing significant time due to foul trouble (McGruder) and a broken nose (Spradling).
His teammates say he would lead the Big 12 in assists if they made more shots.
“He is distributing the ball so well you don’t really know who to key in on,” McGruder said. “You just have to be prepared and guard. He has been scoring the ball pretty well. He is making a lot better decisions. He is seeing the game better.”
Rodriguez hopes to continue his surge Saturday when No. 18 K-State takes on Oklahoma at 5 p.m. in Norman. It’s a battle for second place in the Big 12 standings.
He will have to do it without the help of his mother, though. She began the trip back to Puerto Rico on Friday. For the first time in two weeks, Rodriguez won’t be able to find her in the stands while he is warming up. He said that helped him mentally prepare.
This time, much as it has since he first left home, knowing she is there in spirit will have to suffice.
“She will be watching, though,” Rodriguez said. “She will be watching from home.”