MANHATTAN — Rodney McGruder leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly, his facial expression still and unchanged.
It was Saturday afternoon, and McGruder had just finished with a team-high 14 points in Kansas State's 82-46 bludgeoning of Howard at Bramlage Coliseum. He had been a perfect 4 of 4 from three-point range, following up on his MVP performance during the Wildcats' championship run at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii last week. And K-State had finished its nonconference season with six straight wins and an 11-1 record.
Still, McGruder stayed in character, stoic and emotionless. That is, until the conversation turned to K-State's upcoming trip down Interstate 70 to Lawrence on Wednesday night. Mention rival Kansas, and it appears McGruder's emotional armor will show cracks — even if just for a second.
"I'm just ready to play that game," said McGruder, a junior guard. "I wish it was tomorrow. I'm just excited and amped up for it. I can't wait...."
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McGruder, of course, could have probably spoken for most of the 12,528 fans inside Bramlage Coliseum. This was a final tuneup for Big 12 play against an overmatched opponent, and the Wildcats made sure there was little drama after the opening minutes.
K-State held a 33-10 lead with 5 minutes, 47 seconds left in the first half after freshman guard Angel Rodriguez sparked a 15-0 run with back-to-back three-pointers. And the lead would swell to 50-18 by halftime. Yes, the Wildcats were going to finish off their 2011 with another victory. But by early in the second half, perhaps the main mystery was this: By how much?
On most days — during most nonconference beatdowns — the margin of victory would be of little significance. Then again, Saturday wasn't most days. The Wildcats were just four days from a date with Kansas — the same KU team that crushed Howard 89-34 on Thursday.
So maybe there was a little more attention paid to the scoreboard on this day. Would K-State handle Howard in the same manner as Kansas? Could the Wildcats do the Jayhawks one better?
In the end, the answer proved to be yes... and no. Not that it matters much.
According to Howard coach Kevin Nickelberry, whose team has played Kansas and Indiana, K-State played like an elite-level college basketball team.
"All of our guys knew the names of Kansas' players because they were big-time recruits," Nickelberry said. "Kansas State does not have a big-time name, but how these guys play to that level is amazing.... They played at the same level as Indiana and as Kansas, and that was just impressive."
Even if you account for the level of competition, the Wildcats picked up where they left off in Hawaii. Four players — McGruder, Rodriguez, Will Spradling and Jeremy Jones — hit at least two three-pointers in the first half as the Wildcats shot better from the behind the arc (55.6 percent) than in front of it (53.8).
Spradling finished with 13 points in 18 minutes, while Rodriguez added 11 points off the bench. And after the game, K-State coach Frank Martin had a simple response for those that suggest the Wildcats aren't a good offensive team.
"I laugh," Martin said.
The Wildcats may have made open shots against Howard, Martin said, but those were the same shots they were missing at times earlier this year. The translation: K-State may have missed shots, but that doesn't mean they weren't playing good basketball.
"Coming into the year, no one gave these guys credit," Martin said, pointing at McGruder and Spradling. "Because all they talked about was that (last year) we were just Jacob Pullen and a bunch of misfits. And that's not the case."
By late on Saturday, the Wildcats had emptied their bench and the focus was already turning to KU. The schedule-makers did the Wildcats no favors, with Big 12 games against KU, Missouri and Baylor right out of the gate. Martin joked that he'd turn down the schedule if he could — before adding: "We're ready."
"When you gotta go play at KU, it could be the first, the fifth, the eighth or the 18th game of the season. It's still gonna be hard," Martin said. "When people gotta come play in Manhattan, it can be the first, the fifth, the eighth or the 18th game of the season, and it's gonna be hard for them."