Long before he coached his first game at Kansas State, Bruce Weber realized something important about the Wildcats.
They are a senior-oriented team.
That might sound odd considering Rodney McGruder, Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez are the only three seniors on the roster. K-State is not a senior-laden team. Only McGruder has been a staple in the starting lineup this season.
Nonetheless, Weber has a saying about his veteran leadership that he repeats over and over: “When our seniors play well, we play well.”
That has been most evident lately. McGruder, Irving and Henriquez have all been in the top six of K-State’s playing rotation the past four games, and the Wildcats are on a four-game winning streak. McGruder is the constant scorer everyone can rely on. Henriquez is the vocal starting forward the rest of the team looks to inside and Irving is the squad’s sixth man, supplying three-pointers and defense off the bench.
Their added presence has led to big things. Not only are the No. 13 Wildcats playing some of their best basketball, they are all alone on top of the Big 12 heading into a Monday’s game at Kansas.
“I’ve said it from the beginning, we depend on our three seniors,” Weber said. “If they play well, or two out of the three, we have a much better chance of winning. They are our experience. They are our go-to guys.”
All three players have been able to contribute at a high level despite enduring ups and downs while transitioning to a new coach.
Early on it seemed McGruder had lost a step from his junior form, but he is now one of the Big 12’s leading scorers. Irving battled injuries and struggled to find his shooting touch during nonconference play, but has scored 10 points in three straight games while remaining one of the team’s top defenders. Henriquez is in the middle of a slump, scoring one point against Texas Tech and becoming a non-factor against Iowa State, but he has provided leadership off the court.
“We really all appreciate the seniors, especially (Jordan),” sophomore forward Thomas Gipson said. “It’s his senior year and he’s having his highs and lows right now, but he still comes to practice ready to practice and he still does everything he needs to do to contribute to this team. I really appreciate all three of them.”
McGruder has grown in the leadership department, too.
“I can say I’m proud of him, because he was always a different type of leader,” said sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez, “a leader who would show you, you know, come in the gym because I do it too, practice hard because I do it, too. Now he is being more vocal. He seems like he is bringing everybody together.”
With the biggest game so far this season up next, K-State will once again turn to its three seniors for guidance. The Jayhawks defeated the Wildcats 59-55 last month at Bramlage Coliseum on a night when K-State missed too many outside shots and players admitted they put unneeded pressure on themselves.
Kansas now seems vulnerable, but winning the rematch won’t be easy. K-State hasn’t won at Allen Fieldhouse since 2006 and never challenged the Jayhawks there under former coach Frank Martin. It also doesn’t have much experience playing with a lead in the conference standings. Poise will be a necessity.
McGruder isn’t worried.
“It seems like people try to amp up that Kansas game more than any other game,” McGruder said. “It’s just any other game. I feel like we are prepared. We were prepared (for Iowa State). We are going to be prepared on Monday. ”
As long as he knows he has three seniors to depend on, Weber is confident, too.
“We just need those guys,” Weber said, “to give us the stability and the experience they’ve been giving us all year.”