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January 10, 2012Seated behind a microphone, Rodney McGruder pauses to think. It's not that he has to pour over a pile of data. It's just that, at least to him, the question being posed seems like an odd one -- one he's never given much thought.
It was asked concisely and directly. "When was the last time you were the top scoring option on a team?"
For most high-level college basketball players, finding the answer doesn't take much reflection. For the Kansas State junior, though, it requires some thought. McGruder has spent his college career to this point as a backup singer while names such as Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente graced the purple marquee. Before that, his second fiddle was played to Wally Judge, a high school teammate and McDonald's All-American.
Even on the summer circuit, Judge was there. He was listed on the same roster and part of the same starting lineup. When K-State recruited McGruder, members of the Wildcats' coaching staff saw him as a simple throw-in -- a free gift at the bottom of the five-star Cracker Jack box that was his teammate.
So you'll have to excuse him if his recent transition to leading man hasn't gone smoothly at times.
"It's kind of different being the first guy on somebody's scouting report," McGruder said. "I've played with great players before, but it's not something that I look into. I just try to focus in on the game and focus in on what I can do to help my team."
Against 15-0 Baylor and for the rest of the season, what McGruder "can do to help his team" is relatively simple:
Embrace his role. Embrace being the man. Embrace -- for lack of a better term -- being selfish. Team leaders get theirs, and it's no coincidence that No. 18 K-State has been at its best when McGruder has filled up the scoring column. He scored 20 in Saturday's win over Missouri. He went for 28 in an impressive win over Long Beach State in Hawaii and posted 20 more in K-State's double-overtime loss to West Virginia.
Imploring a player to think, "score first" isn't a move out of the coaching-clich?andbook, but it's also not something McGruder is hearing for the first time. He's just finally starting to listen.
"I tell him that all the time," said Morgan State assistant coach Bruce Shingler, who worked with McGruder in high school and on the AAU circuit. "That's always been how he's been though. He's just a good kid who wants to spread it around."
McGruder calls it "attack mode" and admits to struggling with consistently living in the aptly titled zone. Progress on that front is apparent on the floor, though. With each game, the junior seems to be embracing his previously foreign starring role. He'll never call it that. He's reserved by nature. Passing credit comes naturally for him, but it's not hard to read between the lines when he speaks.
"There were parts of my game that I knew I had to improve on in order to be the leader and take control," he said. "It's something I had to work on over the summer."
And as for his coach, the man now imploring him to assert himself? He likes what he sees so far.
"There are players who don't want that job," Frank Martin said. "Some guys are great assistant coaches and don't want to be head coaches. They don't want to deal with the nonsense that we have to deal with. Rodney wants to be the guy. When he's not handling it right, I sit on him and say, 'I thought you said this is what you wanted?'"
And so the journey from second option to top dog will continue on Tuesday night, when the Wildcats, fresh off an upset of Missouri, will look to knock off the undefeated, fourth-ranked Bears. A win will send a notice to the league that Martin's team may be ready to actually compete for a Big 12 title.
And chances are, such a message would be delivered on McGruder's personal letterhead.
"Things aren't always going to be handed to you," McGruder said. "You have to create for yourself somewhere down the line."
For him, there's no time like the present.