KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For a basketball player who values his assist-to-turnover ratio more than any other statistic, Angel Rodriguez was unable to truly enjoy his freshman season at Kansas State.
Sure, he had fun. And he was proud to help the Wildcats reach the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 by becoming the team’s point guard and dishing out 101 assists. But he also lost a team-high 87 turnovers and committed needless fouls.
The mistakes lingered in his mind for months.
“I don’t like turning the ball over,” Rodriguez said Thursday at the Sprint Center. “I know it is going to happen, but I don’t like it. I always look forward to having a lot of assists and very few turnovers or no turnovers. As a point guard, that is what you want.”
Rodriguez has been getting what he wants on a more regular basis as a sophomore. The foolish decisions and risks he routinely made last year have dwindled, while his assist count has skyrocketed. Rodriguez finished the regular season with 169 assists and 73 turnovers, a ratio of 2.25 that ranked second in the Big 12.
He has played so well that he has a shot at breaking Steve Henson’s single-season K-State assists record of 186, set in 1987-88. If not for missing two games at the end of December with an injury, he might have been able to put his name in the record books on Friday against La Salle in an NCAA second-round game. Still, he is within striking distance. He is averaging 5.28 assists, but has had as many as 10 in games.
The longer K-State’s season continues, the better chance he has.
“To break that record, it is a sign that I am unselfish and involve my team,” Rodriguez said. “But right now we are thinking about bigger goals. That will take care of itself. I don’t really focus on looking at what I have accomplished until the season is over. I really like winning, especially this year with the team we have and the success we have had all season. It is wide open this year, so I am really, really trying to get us as far as we can this year and maybe win a championship.”
Wherever his motivation comes from, the Wildcats are at their best when Rodriguez stands out. In many ways, their season has mirrored his.
Before conference play, he was plagued by inconsistency. One game he would have 10 points and six assists. Another game he would have one point and two assists. K-State started 9-2, but lost badly to Michigan and Gonzaga.
Then conference games began and he started putting up double-doubles, finishing with 22 points and 10 assists in a win over Baylor, 21 points and 10 assists against TCU and landing on the All-Big 12 second team. He also became the team’s second-leading scorer at 11.7 points. K-State went 14-4 and tied for its first conference championship since 1977.
“He was the MVP for both teams a lot of nights. Now, he is a full extension of Bruce Weber,” ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “Bruce has given him just enough leeway to be fearless, but within the constraints of the offense. I really think next year he is going to be one of the best point guards in the country. If he continues with his improvement, the sky is the limit.”
That improvement didn’t come easily. Rodriguez had to adjust to a coaching change during the offseason. Frank Martin left for South Carolina. Weber came in from Illinois. He had to adjust to Weber’s motion offense, which is more complicated. It involves increased screening and passing and requires more knowledge to execute.
His new coaches told him he had the speed, skills and aggressive mindset to thrive in the system. But he needed to learn how to stay under control and make better decisions first. He could no longer commit fouls and take low-percentage shots based on emotion.
They quickly discovered Rodriguez was up for the challenge.
“We told him don’t miss open people just because you have the ability to score,” associate head coach Chris Lowery said. “When he was a freshman and he didn’t know what to do, he would just shoot. Now we tell him to look at all options. Be a playmaker first and then look to score. He has embraced that mindset. He is having double-doubles. His progress and maturity was a big reason why we were able to take off in conference play.
“He always takes the biggest shots. Rodney (McGruder) hits game winners, but when we need big shots in the guts of the game it always seems like Angel takes them.”
His teammates have noticed.
“His court vision has improved greatly,” junior guard Will Spradling added. “He gets the ball to people right when they are open and where they are comfortable. He handles pressure a lot better and doesn’t turn it over. He has improved a lot.”
Crazy thing is, Rodriguez thinks he has a lot of improvement left to make. He missed 13 shots at Oklahoma State and nine against Kansas in the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament.
Those mistakes stay with him, too.
“There is always another level,” Rodriguez said. “Playing against the best of the best in this tournament, we definitely have to be more focused, but continue to do what you have done the whole season to have success.”