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November 11, 2011

K-State's McGruder operates quietly

Getting a full story out of Rodney McGruder is defeating him in a game of one-on-one.

And the junior isn't bad on defense

Want to find out that he's been fighting severe tendonitis in his knee since arriving in Manhattan? You'll have to ask his coach. Want to know that he only recently picked up a Playstation controller and became a gaming wizard overnight? Ask his roommate. Want to hear about the time he flirted with transferring away from Kansas State? Get in contact with one of his close friends.

Cutting through the bulletproof glass he uses as a guard isn't pulling teeth. It's drilling without Novocain. McGruder even has trouble identifying the trainer with whom he worked daily in Washington D.C. this summer. He refers to him as "Fat Cat." When pressed to produce his actual name, he struggles mightily to come up with "Chris Something."

It's not as if he sets out to be distant or subversive. It's his nature to be apprehensive. He keeps the chitchat brief and general with those outside his inner circle. It's the reason he's one of few Wildcat players without a Twitter account. And forget mining him for thoughts in a formal interview setting. Those are strictly for talking hoops, a conversation Jordan Henriquez, who shared a apartment with McGruder last season, says consumes close to 75 percent of the their conversation.

He spends many of his nights alone in Bramlage Coliseum, where he often shoots jump shot after jump shot until the early hours. It's there that he is most comfortable, not standing at the center of a circle of cameras and recorders. He often times rephrases questions and packages them as responses instead of offering up insight. And don't think for a minute that the move isn't carefully calculated.

"I'm more relaxed around my teammates, but if I spend more time around you, I'll be the same way I am around them," McGruder said to a pack of reporters, many of whom have covered him for years, at Kansas State's annual media day.

If loose lips really do sink ships, McGruder is the captain of an aircraft carrier. The knee injury he played through for two seasons didn't remain a secret because of team policy. Instead, it never came out because nobody thought to ask how his knee was feeling. If head coach Frank Martin didn't unveil the tidbit at a Catbacker event this summer, no one would have been the wiser.

The revelation is one that makes his career to this point more impressive. The 11.1 points and team-best 5.9 rebounds per game he amassed last season were collected despite injury and he arrived on the All-Big 12 team with a busted wheel. Literally everything McGruder has done as a Wildcat -- including all 506 points he's scored -- has been done at less than full strength.

"We remember the dunk, where he outran the Texas team here," assistant coach Brad Underwood said, recalling the Wildcats 2009 win over the Longhorns. "We didn't see that last year. That explosiveness and that quickness wasn't there."

But even that was done on an ailing knee.

Fact is, most K-State fans have never seen a healthy Rodney McGruder play basketball. The thought is hard to grasp, but the fact that his knee wasn't the only distraction he's lived through in the last calendar year is as surprising.

His best friend and high school teammate, Wally Judge, left the Wildcat program midway through last season and was followed out the door by assistant coach Dalonte Hill, the man who recruited him, just months later. McGruder won't tell you it was easy to say goodbye, but he also won't outline the scope of its difficulty. Details, especially in situations like this, aren't exactly his thing.

"It was a little tough," he said, staying true to form with a vast, but compact understatement.

Bruce Shingler helped coach both McGruder and Judge on the AAU circuit when he worked for the D.C. Assault organization and also once served as part of Martin's support staff at K-State. Now an assistant coach at Morgan State, he and McGruder spent the bulk of the offseason together while Shingler acted as both a friend and confident to the guard in what he calls "troubling times."

The bond is obviously nothing new. It was Shingler, then a K-State employee, that implored Hill to recruit McGruder, whom Shingler says was once viewed as a "throw in" with Judge by the Wildcat staff. The 2008 meeting in the K-State basketball offices is still clear in his mind today.

"Back then, Dalonte told me he hadn't seen enough out of Rodney to offer and that he only wanted Wally," he said. "I was just like, 'OK you better look again'."

According to Shingler, the departures of Judge and Hill had more of an impact on McGruder than the guard will ever explain publicly. It shook him so deeply, in fact, that this year's K-State squad came close to having a dramatically different look, a look that didn't include No. 22.

"Rodney was contemplating maybe leaving K-State," Shingler said. "That's how much it hurt him, but he decided he wanted to stay loyal to Frank and the guys on the team. That's Rodney. He's a loyal guy. It's why he couldn't really understand when Wally left, either. He's so loyal that he can't really understand when that kind of thing happens, even though it was a better situation for Wally and for Dalonte."

Two months later, McGruder is still in Manhattan, still wearing a purple jersey, still preparing to start his third season as a Wildcat along side the teammates he now refers to as "family." He spent the final leg of his offseason with a clear head, obsessively drilling his ball handling at Washington D.C. area gyms with the trainer whose name he never committed to memory. For the first time in years, he made strong cuts and attacked the basket with vigor.

The Rodney McGruder the Big 12 thought it knew had become a thing of the past.

"Rodney scores the ball and can stretch it from deep," Kansas head coach Bill Self said. "I'm a fan of his. Athletes that can shoot are hard to guard."

As it turns out, though, Self knows McGruder the basketball player as well as most people know McGruder the person. A spot-shooter he is not.

Not anymore.

"It used to hurt to cut and to push off," McGruder said. "Now it all feels right, finally. I think you'll be able to notice."

Aside from Judge and Hill, other people are now missing. Jacob Pullen is not here. Curtis Kelly? He's gone, too. Lineage will win K-State exactly zero games this season. That task will instead fall mostly on the shoulders of McGruder.

And with two good knees and a clear head, he fancies himself ready to support the weight.

"I told myself that I was going to be the star one day. I want people to see it this year," he said. And if he's true to his word, it's almost time for everyone to finally get to know him.



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