Rodriguez Leading No. 18 K-State into Big 12 Race

By: Associated Press Email
By: Associated Press Email

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She stood in the back of the interview room, wearing a bright yellow coat over a purple Kansas State sweatshirt, unable to comprehend much of what her son was saying.

She couldn't help but smile anyway.

In the universal language of basketball, Jacqueline Tricoche still understood exactly what her son, Angel Rodriguez, had just done for the Wildcats. His 11 points and eight assists on Wednesday night in a blowout win over Texas had pushed them into a tie for second in the Big 12, and that's why the sophomore guard was fielding question after question under blazing spotlights.

When the news conference finally broke, and Tricoche slipped into a hallway deep within Bramlage Coliseum, she was asked how it felt watching her son play at Kansas State for the first time.

She paused for a minute, and then said quietly, "Muy bonita."

Very beautiful.

Rodriguez isn't the Wildcats' leading scorer, of course. That would be Rodney McGruder. He's not the leading rebounder, either. That would be Thomas Gipson.

But his game is beautiful nonetheless.

The barrel-shaped spark-plug is the team's best ball-handler, the key to making coach Bruce Weber's motion offense run. He may also be the team's best perimeter defender, the blood-and-guts glue guy for a program that keeps grinding out wins with a chip on its shoulder.

The Wildcats are off to a 16-4 start, their losses coming to top-ranked Michigan, second-ranked Kansas, and seventh-ranked Gonzaga, and on the road against another former Top 25 team, Iowa State.

All that success due in no small part to Rodriguez, who was recruited to Kansas State by former coach Frank Martin and then convinced to stay by Weber after an offseason coaching change.

"He's very under control, letting things happen, reading and taking what the defense gives him," said Weber, marveling at the fact that Rodriguez has 31 assists and just four turnovers in his last four games. "He's supposed to start our pressure on defense, and he can create havoc on guards, and be the guy who creates on offense. Now if we can get him to shoot the ball, he'd have it all together."

At that, Rodriguez slowly nods his head.

Yes, his shooting touch has abandoned him the past few weeks, but he's still averaging close to 10 point. More importantly, he's making everyone around him that much better.

"We've got a lot of trust in Angel," forward Omari Lawrence said. "He distributes in transition, puts pressure on the defense. He takes pride in stopping the other point guard. He's a leader."

That's one attribute he's had since he was a kid.

Rodriguez left Puerto Rico about five years ago to pursue basketball -- and a better education -- at Miami's Dr. Krop High School. His mother had to stay behind and care for Rodriguez's two younger brothers, Luis Rivera and Daniel Rivera, and never really had a chance to see him play.

Angelito, as he's called, was establishing himself as one of the top prep players in Florida, and he began fielding scholarship offers from several schools. Rodriguez picked Kansas State, which only seems like a different world from the Caribbean, in part because of Martin's connection with Miami and his AAU coach, Shakey Rodriguez.

He made an immediate impact during his freshman season, when Rodriguez started 17 games on the way to the NCAA tournament. And he's been even better this season, growing into one of the savviest and most under-appreciated guards in the Big 12.

When the 5-foot-11 Rodriguez is open on the perimeter, he's willing to shoot the 3. When he sees a crease to the lane, he'll take off for the rim. When defenses collapse, he has an uncanny ability to pitch the ball to the perimeter for one of his trademark assists.

He did all those things against the Longhorns, and left such an impression on coach Rick Barnes that he used Rodriguez as a post-game example of the grit he wants out of his own team.

"Really good players, even when they're not shooting well, they affect the game," he said. "You look at that: eight assists, one turnover. He set the tone. I love him because he's so tough."

Rodriguez couldn't have picked a better time to have one of his better games, either.

His mother was finishing up a two-week stay in the frigid Flint Hills, one filled with plenty of home cooking -- Rodriguez is a sucker for mofongo, a garlic-flavored dish of mashed plantains. And on the day of the game, the two of them awoke to find the world under a blanket of white.

It was the first time Rodriguez's mother had ever seen snow.
"Yeah, we took a lot of pictures, and she was happy," Rodriguez recalled with a smile. "When we saw snow, we had to go out there and play a little bit. It was special."

When the game tipped off that evening, Rodriguez was in the middle of everything, his value only growing when McGruder and fellow veteran Martavious Irving got into foul trouble.

More than once, Rodriguez made the kind of did-you-see-that no-look pass that always ends up on highlight reels. And by the time he took a seat late in the fourth quarter, substitutes were flooding into the game and Kansas State was well on its way to an 83-57 rout.

"It's a lot different from back home," Tricoche told The Associated Press after the game, still marveling at the experience. "There are a lot of distractions in Puerto Rico. Coming here and seeing the fans, it's really special. Really beautiful."

Rodriguez said that he made a promise to his mother that if he ever left home, it wouldn't be for no reason. He wanted to make her proud, he said, "and I'm sure she's proud of me."

"I wish I could keep her here forever," he added. "For her to come here and see the atmosphere, the crowd and everything, it's probably the greatest experience she's ever had."


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