MANHATTAN — It’s happening again. At least, Jordan Henriquez hopes it is.
Much like last year, the senior forward is playing his best basketball at the end of the season. But even he is wondering what that means. Is his improved play a sign of things to come? Or is it simply the result of good matchups?
“I want to say yes,” said Henriquez when asked if he had put his struggles behind him. “But I’m going to say no, just because I know I could have been consistent throughout the season.”
A year ago, Henriquez shook off a disappointing start with a strong finish that began with a 17-point, 12-rebound effort against Iowa State. That dominating performance led to him averaging 15 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in his final six games.
Many expected him to carry that success into his senior season and to contend for all-conference honors, but it didn’t happen. Aside from a strong showing against Florida he was a non-factor early. It took him until January to grab 10 rebounds in a game. It took him until February to score 10 points in a game. And he only has one double-double, a 10-point, 10-rebound night at Baylor three weeks ago.
His stats haven’t soared since that moment like they did a year ago, but they have been better than the 4.7 points and 4.8 rebounds he is averaging. He came close to another double-double last week against Baylor and coach Bruce Weber has noticed a difference.
“He seems more assertive,” Weber said. “I think all year he shot blocked, then whether it was offensive or defensive rebounds he has given us some put backs. He gave us some nice post moves on Saturday and it just seems like last year. He seems more into the games and ready to play.”
With K-State and Kansas tied for first place in the Big 12 standings with one game to play, Henriquez picked an ideal time to play at a higher level. If he can produce a double-double against Oklahoma State on Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena, the Wildcats’ chances of winning go up.
At 6-foot-11, 250 pounds, he can be a difference-maker inside, especially on defense. He is the leading shot-blocker in K-State history.
But it’s been a frustrating final season. Henriquez seemed slow to adjust to Weber’s motion offense, and was out of the starting lineup for 12 games. His grandmother recently died and he has battled injuries.
“I commend him for always keeping his head up and looking for the best in things, just trying to do the right things and remaining positive,” said senior wing Rodney McGruder. “Everyone has ups and downs. He had his, but he just continues to fight and play hard so I tip my hat to him, because he stays the course. Coach pulled him from the starting lineup. Now he’s back in the starting lineup. He never gave up. I really like that about him.”
Last year, it took going head-to-head with Kansas center Jeff Withey to get Henriquez going. He was motivated by Withey’s success and wanted to prove he was capable of the same improvement.
This season, Henriquez credits a similar story. Before playing Baylor at Bramlage Coliseum, he noticed how much respect Baylor big men Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson were receiving. They were both long, versatile players with possible futures in the NBA. He wanted to prove he could out-play them.
“Coming in and hearing the talk about their two posts,” Henriquez said, “I think it started right there.”
Oddly, Henriquez has struggled against smaller opponents. But he will likely see large, quality frontlines throughout the postseason.
Neither Henriquez nor Weber knows why it takes a challenging opponent to bring the best out of Henriquez.
“Better late than never,” Weber said. “I just hope he can have a great finish like last year. If that happens, that puts us to another level.”
Spradling set for return — Will Spradling will play against Oklahoma State on Saturday. The junior guard watched K-State’s game against TCU from the bench and played five minutes of action last week against Baylor while recovering from a bruised sternum suffered against Texas, but he said he is now healthy.
“I don’t know if I will start, but I know I will play,” Spradling said. “I’m going to play Saturday for sure.”
Weber said Spradling, who is averaged 8.3 points and 2.7 rebounds while starting the first 29 games, will likely receive a reduced role.
“I don’t know if he is a 30-minute guy in the game, but it would really help to have him for 10-15 minutes,” Weber said. “That would help against them. They are so long and athletic.”