Angel Rodriguez dribbled into the lane and toward the basket against West Virginia. Kansas State was up by 18 points with about eight minutes remaining.
Rodriguez didn’t have to get crazy.
But he put his head down amidst a bunch of big, tough West Virginia defenders, threw up a shot near the basket and watched it go in. He was fouled and made the free throw. It was a daring, risky three-point play by a 5-foot-11, 180-pound point guard who knows no fear.
K-State wouldn’t be 21-5 and tied for the Big 12 lead with Kansas if it weren’t for Rodriguez, who is playing the best stretch of basketball during his two seasons as a Wildcat.
There are flaws in his game, no doubt. That 36.1-percent field-goal percentage is not easy on the eyes.
But Rodriguez does so many other things well that it’s easy to forgive his shooting woes, which haven’t really been woes lately.
In K-State’s past four games, Rodriguez is shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 40.9 percent from the three-point line and is averaging 17.5 points and 7.3 assists.
“I’m still learning, I’m still young,’’ Rodriguez said. “But I feel like the sky is the limit for me. I’ve got a lot of things to learn still.’’
Rodriguez reminds me of former K-State guard, and fellow Puerto Rican, Denis Clemente, who was also recruited to Manhattan by former Wildcat coach Frank Martin.
Clemente, whose K-State career ended in 2010, played with the same kind of passion and toughness that Rodriguez exhibits.
“Growing up in Puerto Rico was pretty tough,’’ Rodriguez said. “Everybody wants to make it out. But I would never, never, ever trade that childhood. Because, first off, it was fun. And it makes you grow up faster.’’
Rodriguez left Puerto Rico to attend high school in Miami, where he played for Michael Krop High. It was one of the nation’s highest-ranked high school teams until it was discovered that an ineligible player had been used. Krop forfeited all but one of its wins, but Rodriguez averaged 23 points and six assists as a senior.
Rodriguez had a decent freshman season at K-State, averaging 8.3 points and more than three assists. But that field-goal percentage was 36 percent.
“My level of confidence wasn’t very high,’’ Rodriguez said. “I had trouble finding a comfort level.’’
Missing shots is buzz kill when it comes to confidence and Rodriguez has spent most of his time at K-State wondering why more of his shots weren’t falling.
That’s why his recent performance is so encouraging. He’s also getting more and more comfortable, he said, with the offensive style of first-year coach Bruce Weber.
“I wouldn’t say we’re there yet,’’ Rodriguez said. “It takes time. But hopefully we’ll get to that point.’’
There was some doubt as to whether Rodriguez would stay at K-State after Martin left for South Carolina after last season. The two are especially close.
But Weber, to his credit, was able to keep K-State’s roster intact and there hasn’t been a more valuable player than Rodriguez, whose passion for the game is obvious.
“I was a baseball player in Puerto Rico first, a center fielder,’’ Rodriguez said. “But basketball has kind of taken over as the popular sport there. I would say the two most popular sports now are basketball and boxing. They’ve surpassed baseball. A lot of people in Puerto Rico play basketball.’’
Rodriguez was hardly a factor in K-State’s 67-61 upset win over Florida in Kansas City on Dec. 22, scoring four points. He was in a funk at the time, which got worse when he had to sit out the next two games while suffering from tendinitis.
“That really held me back,’’ Rodriguez said. “It took some of my confidence away.’’
But as we saw the other night against West Virginia, confidence is not a problem for Rodriguez now. He’ll take the basketball anywhere, without fear.
“It’s the way I was raised by my mother and the environment,’’ he said.
K-State is following Rodriguez’s lead.
“We’re not surprising ourselves at all,’’ he said. “This whole team was pretty much back from last season. We know each other well. It was just a matter of getting used to the new system and the new coaching staff. We’ve come a long way.’’
His shooting didn’t pick up much after his return. But Rodriguez is hot now, as K-State prepares for a game on Saturday night against Texas in Austin.