MANHATTAN — He has played in more than 100 games. He has been a full-time starter since he was a sophomore. His basketball coach says Kansas State’s hopes for a successful season start with him.
And he might also be the most overlooked player on the Wildcats’ roster.
Welcome to the life of Will Spradling. Even though he has helped K-State reach the NCAA Tournament in three straight seasons and share a Big 12 championship last season, the 6-foot-2 guard is still able to walk around campus in virtual anonymity weeks before the start of his senior season.
“If we walk into places the guys that don’t play as much as Will get noticed before he does,” senior guard Shane Southwell said. “It is, honestly, hilarious. It has been like that for four years.”
Why haven’t fans haven’t flocked to Spradling? For starters, his game isn’t flashy. He values free throws, passes and defense. He has also never been one of K-State’s go-to players. Last season he averaged 7.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists, but only had a handful of memorable games. For every special performance, there was an equally poor game in which he missed shots and made little impact to balance the scale. His career, for the most part, has been up and down.
Or, as Southwell puts it, his biggest contributions aren’t always easy to identify.
“His game is never going to wow you, but he does all the little things, and, at the end of the day when you look up Will Spradling has changed the game,” Southwell said. “That’s what he does. He’s a winner.”
Fans may have trouble recognizing Spradling this year, for new reasons. Spradling walked around K-State’s basketball media day on Wednesday sporting a larger body — he added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason — and a new-found sense of confidence.
“You’re not going to see me getting pushed around anymore,” Spradling said.
When former point guard Angel Rodriguez transferred last spring, everyone turned to Spradling to take over the team’s most important position. He embraced the pressure.
He has experience running the point, playing there in high school and at K-State as a sophomore, but has spent most of his college career at shooting guard. The transition hasn’t been easy, and some have wondered if it will be too much for him.
Still, he can’t wait for the opportunity.
“Obviously people doubt me. I have to prove myself,” Spradling said. “I didn’t play the point last year at all. I felt like I did a good job of it my sophomore year, the only problem was I turned the ball over too much. But I have worked on that. I’ve loved going back to point guard this year, being able to control the game and control the tempo. That is something that really excites me. I have been playing point guard since I was little.”
His style will be noticeably different from what Rodriguez, a fast and aggressive, brought to the court. Rodriguez often created his own shot by driving to the basket late into possessions. Spradling will try to spread the ball around on a more consistent basis, and score from the outside with the help of ball screens.
“I describe myself as a pass-first (guard) but I’m not going to pass up open shots, either,” Spradling said, “especially being a senior leader and someone they are going to look to score. I am going to take open looks when I have them, but I am also going to look to get other people the ball.”
Spradling won’t have to handle point-guard duties by himself all season. Freshman Jevon Thomas, a true point guard, is expected to move into the rotation once he becomes eligible in late December. In the mean time, Spradling may only get occasional relief from Southwell and freshmen Nigel Johnson, Marcus Foster and Wesley Iwundu.
That will be a change from last year, when Spradling and former guard Martavious Irving were the team’s secondary ball-handlers. And point-guard depth will be a concern early on.
But Weber likes his starter.
“It starts with Will,” Weber said. “He has played a lot of games, a lot of minutes. Sometimes people take him for granted. He just does so much for you as a player. He has a good feel, he can play at the point, he can play at the two, he has such good awareness. He knows what you are going to do ahead of time and leads by example. We are just fortunate to have him there.”
Key contributors? — K-State coaches are high on their freshman class. Foster, Iwundu and Johnson have turned heads in preseason practices, and all three are expected to make an early impact. But Weber said Wednesday that he will ask for even more from returning reserves Nino Williams, Omari Lawrence and D.J. Johnson.
“Those three guys are X-factors,” Weber said. “If we could have one of those guys rise up the way Shane did last year that would be really important for us.”
Scrimmage set — K-State’s first exhibition game is Nov. 1 against Pittsburg State at Bramlage Coliseum, but the Wildcats will test themselves against outside competition much sooner. K-State will take on Iowa in a closed-door scrimmage on Sunday in Omaha, according to several sources.