- Jason King
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Part of Frank Martin’s job as Kansas State’s basketball coach is to make sure his players bounce back mentally after a tough loss.
But after the Wildcats fell at home to Kansas last week, the roles were reversed.
Martin was dejected. He sought out a pep talk that night from his old high school coach. When practice rolled around the following day, he wasn’t exactly eager to show up at Bramlage Coliseum.
“But then I stepped onto the court and the kids got me going,” Martin told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “It was their enthusiasm. They were so tuned in and so competitive. It made me realize just how lucky I am to get to coach those guys every day.
“They’ve been playing their hearts out all year.”
Tuesday, they were rewarded for it.
Rodney McGruder scored 24 points and Angel Rodriguez added six assists to propel the unranked Wildcats to a 78-68 road win over No. 3 Missouri at Mizzou Arena. The victory marked the second time this season that K-State has defeated the Tigers, and it came just three days after Martin’s squad topped then-No. 10 Baylor in Waco.
This is the first time in school history that the Wildcats have won consecutive games against top-10 teams.
More importantly, Kansas State is now 8-7 in Big 12 play. With two wins against Missouri and others against Baylor, Alabama, Texas and Long Beach State, Kansas State is basically a lock to make the NCAA tournament as long as it wins one of its final three contests to finish at least .500 against league competition.
The Wildcats host Iowa State on Saturday before hitting the road to face Texas A&M. Their final regular-season game is at home against Oklahoma State.
“When you get to this time of year and your kids are doing everything you ask of them, you’ve got to be proud,” said Martin, whose team in 19-8 overall.
Hard as the Wildcats have fought all season, an air of frustration and doubt hovered over the program less than a week ago. K-State’s Feb. 13 loss to Kansas was its fourth setback in six games.
The Wildcats led the Jayhawks briefly after intermission before collapsing down the stretch. The previous week they’d surrendered a 14-point second-half cushion in a loss to Texas. K-State also lost to Iowa State despite leading by 14 in the second half.
Martin said his players never let the losses hurt their confidence. And they never lagged on the practice court.
“You try to build a culture in your program where you focus on the things you can control and not the scores of games,” Martin said. “These kids are taking it to heart. They’re representing our uniform in a big-time way right now.”
That was especially the case Tuesday.
Missouri entered the game making 50.3 percent of its shots, a mark that ranked second in the country. The Tigers shot just 38 percent against the Wildcats.
Baylor shoots 47.5 percent from the field but also shot just 38 percent in its loss to K-State. Kansas, which makes 48.6 percent of its attempts, shot 39.6 percent in its victory over Martin’s squad.
Kansas State also out-rebounded the Tigers, Jayhawks and Bears -- all of whom were ranked in the top 10.
“Defense and rebounding,” Martin said. “That’s what we work on. That’s what we put our stamp on. These kids are taking so much pride in it. It’s allowing us to spend more time on offense in practice. As we get more efficient offensively and turn it over less, it allows our defense to set and not give up baskets on the three-on-one break or the two-on-one break.”
One of the biggest difference-makers Tuesday was Rodriguez, a freshman point guard who has struggled with his decision-making at times this year and has also been a defensive liability at times. Lately that hasn’t been the case.
Rodriguez was magnificent Tuesday. His nifty assist in traffic to Jordan Henriquez for a dunk turned a 70-66 lead into a 72-66 cushion with 2:14 remaining.
“For him to make that play in that moment of the game shows what he’s about,” Martin said. “He’s got a great mind for the game. He sees passes that no one on our team sees.”
McGruder eclipsed the 20-point barrier for the first time since Jan. 18. Martin said McGruder, who averages a team-high 14.5 points, missed 12 straight days of practice because of a foot injury and resumed workouts only a week ago.
“He’s getting back into the groove,” Martin said.
So, too, are the Wildcats.
And from the looks of things, they’re only going to get better.
Part of Frank Martin’s job as Kansas State’s basketball coach is to make sure his players bounce back mentally after a tough loss.But after the Wildcats fell at home to Kansas last week, the roles were reversed.