The Inside Slant

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Following its second straight road victory against a Top 10 team, Kansas State may have locked up an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Wildcats knocked off No. 3 Missouri 78-68 Tuesday in Columbia, Mo.

That completed a gantlet in which Kansas State (19-8, 8-7 Big 12) faced the Big 12's top three teams -- Kansas, Baylor and Missouri -- in successive games and won the last two.

Though Kansas State's next opponent is unranked, Iowa State (19-8, 9-5 Big 12) remains a difficult foe and an important one. Both teams are jockeying for fourth place in the conference standings.

The Cyclones defeated the Wildcats 72-70 on Jan. 31. The game-winning shot by sophomore forward Royce White capped a 14-point comeback with less than 15 minutes to play.

That basket culminated a terrific all-around performance by White, who had 22 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Kansas State's big men, Jordan Henriquez, Jamar Samuels and Thomas Gipson, will have to do a better job defending one of the Big 12's most versatile forwards.

If the Wildcats hope to win at home Saturday, their leading scorer, junior guard Rodney McGruder, must improve on his shooting performance from the first meeting with Iowa State. He shot 5-for-16 on Jan. 31.

McGruder, though, may be able to use his 24-point performance against Missouri as a springboard.

NOTES, QUOTES

Win at Baylor helped 'Cats NCAA credentials

--Floating near the bubble for a postseason opportunity in the NCAA Tournament, Kansas State fortified its credentials with a Feb. 18 victory at Baylor.

It was not pretty and it was not easy. It was a typical finish for the Wildcats, except that they pulled out a tight outcome with a defensive stop at the end to preserve a 57-56 win.

Point guard Angel Rodriguez made a costly freshman mistake with an inexcusable travel as he went in for an uncontested layup with 13 seconds remaining.

That gave Baylor a final opportunity, but Quincy Miller's shot bounded off after it was partially deflected by Kansas State forward Jordan Henriquez.

"To come to their building and win this game, after all the (close) losses we've had, it feels great," said Rodriguez, who bounced back from seven turnovers and no points in a Feb. 13 loss to Kansas to post 15 points, six assists and four steals at Baylor.

Just when it appeared Kansas State was potentially fading out of the NCAA picture, the Wildcats are squarely in again barring a late collapse. The toughest game remaining on its schedule is Feb. 21 at Missouri, a team the Wildcats defeated 75-59 on Jan. 7.

Whatever they face, Rodriguez appears to be the guard who commands the point. Martin made that clear when he spoke with his freshman following the Kansas defeat and told Rodriguez to remain positive.

"I needed to hear that," said Rodriguez, "especially from him."

--The season has included a short suspension, as well as reduced minutes, yet F Jordan Henriquez is beginning to give Kansas State a lift again down the stretch. The 7-0 junior played tough inside during a Feb. 13 loss against Kansas, then provided nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks in a 57-56 win at Baylor on Feb. 18. Two buckets off lobs at the 5:05 and 1:55 marks in the second half helped the Wildcats seal the win, along with a deflection on the potential game-winner attempted by the Bears' Quincy Miller in the final seconds. "If he keeps playing that way, he's going to find himself making a tremendous positive impact on our team coming down the stretch," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said.

--Quite often, F Jamar Samuels almost defies logic with some of the easy shots he misses around the rim. Yet the senior will be key to Kansas State's stretch run because of the leadership he provides and his work on the glass. In addition, he is a sneaky 3-point threat. He went 4 of 6 from that distance while posting 20 points and 12 boards in a Feb. 13 loss to Kansas, then went 2 of 3 from behind the arc at Baylor, where he managed nine points and five rebounds. One of the treys came at the end of the half when the Bears had a foul to give but didn't execute.

--The Feb. 13 loss against Kansas gave the Jayhawks exactly two-thirds of the all-time victories in the Sunflower series, pushing their record against Kansas State to 182-91. The series has been renewed more times than any played by either of the rivals.

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 --

Wins for fifth-year Kansas State coach Frank Martin against top-10 opponents following a 78-68 victory against No. 3 Missouri on Feb. 21.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I'm just doing whatever I can to help my team win. From the jump ball (against Baylor), it was all about intensity and matching their intensity." -- Kansas State F Jordan Henriquez.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAMES:

--vs. Iowa State, Feb. 25

KEY MATCHUPS:

The Wildcats blew a 14-point lead over the final 14 minutes to fall 72-70 in the first meeting, allowing F Royce White to dribble out the clock before hitting a game-winning jumper. White is the Cyclones' key contributor, passing the ball out of the post as well as any big man in the Big 12 and perhaps the country. Several long-range bombers effectively spread the floor for Iowa State and make the Cyclones tough to guard.

FUTURES MARKET:

For the Kansas State big men, a key is staying out of foul trouble. The Wildcats have fouls to give with a frontline rotation that incorporates F Jamar Samuels, F Jordan Henriquez, F Thomas Gipson and F Adrian Diaz. Yet each of the players has an emotional side that causes them to ease up or even pout when they encounter adversity. Each must play through that and also provide the toughness that has been a staple underneath for Kansas State ever since Frank Martin was promoted to head coach.

STAR WATCH:

Junior G Rodney McGruder reached double digits for the 22nd time this season, scoring a game-high 24 points Tuesday at Missouri. He aggressively drove the lane, forcing the Tigers to foul, and he converted all eight of his free-throw attempts. He hit both of his shots from 3-point range, and he sank a key shot with 6:26 left after Missouri had cut the lead to three. "I just wanted the ball when I was feeling it," McGruder said, "and that's what my teammates did for me."

PLAYER NOTES

--Junior C Jordan Henriquez's four first-half blocks set a tone against Missouri and established him as the all-time blocks leader in program history with 125. Though limited by early foul trouble, he collected three rebounds and four points during the final three minutes. Since being re-inserted into the starting lineup three games ago, Henriquez has helped the Tigers defeat Baylor and Missouri. --Senior F Jamar Samuels, Kansas State's leading rebounder, asserted his aggressiveness with a team-high 11 boards to go along with nine points Tuesday. He proved to be quick enough to defend the smaller Missouri players and too physical for them on the offensive end.


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