Angel Rodriguez had spent his entire life living in the tropics. He was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a city on the northern coast of the island. While San Juan is significant historically and economically in the Caribbean, these days most people associate the city with a potential vacation destination. That's what happens when beautiful beaches are combined with an average temperature in the 80's 12 months out of the year.
Think about it like this: Rodriguez was born in a place where he had to travel 1,000 miles northeast just to get to Miami, where he went to high school. Even if you listen to Rick Ross and judge the city based solely on a 30-year-old Al Pacino movie, it's impossible to deny the fact that Miami is one of our nation's premiere party destinations.
Before heading off to college, Rodriguez had spent his youth living where the rest of the country goes on Spring Break. So when the time came for the point guard who had twice been named to the Class 6A All-State First Team and was one of the top five prospects in Florida to decide where he would spend four years as, in all likelihood, a star basketball player, he chose ... Manhattan, Ka. Home of the Kansas State Wildcats.
Manhattan is a city of 52,000 that freezes during the winter, deals with droughts and triple-digit temperatures during the summer, sits smack in the middle of tornado alley and has an airport with flights to and from Chicago and Dallas. Only Chicago and Dallas. What motivated Rodriguez to make that move? To go from southern Florida to northeastern Kansas?
"Everybody knows that the reason I came to K-State was because of Frank," Rodriguez said.
The 'Frank' that he is referring to is Frank Martin, the former head coach at Kansas State. Martin, whose parents immigrated from Cuba before he was born, cut his teeth as a high school coach in Miami and still has strong recruiting ties in an area where his name carries quite a bit of weight and garners even more respect. Rodriguez referred to his relationship with Martin as a 'friendship' on more than one occasion during a phone conversation Tuesday evening. Throw in the fact that Martin had turned another Puerto Rican point guard -- former Wildcat Denis Clemente -- into an all-Big 12 performer during a season that ended with Kansas State in the Elite 8, and Rodriguez's decision to play his college ball in the Little Apple was an easy one to foresee.
What wasn't so easy to foresee, however, was Rodriguez's reaction when Martin left to take over the basketball program at South Carolina. Just four days later, Kansas State filled their head coaching vacancy with Bruce Weber, who had been fired after nine seasons at Illinois less than a month earlier. Rodriguez was at a crossroads: follow his coach -- his friend, his mentor -- to South Carolina, where he would have to sit out a season before being forced to compete with Bruce Ellington for playing time, or stay at Kansas State to play for a different coach but with a roster talented enough to compete for a league title in a wide-open Big 12?
"It was a decision I had to make not only based on me, but with my parents and my people and what they thought was best for me," Rodriguez said. It wasn't a decision he made quickly. Rodriguez met with his new coach and heard him out, giving Weber, who was criticized for his recruiting during his tenure at Illinois, a chance to re-recruit him and convince him to remain at Kansas State. And luckily for Weber, Rodriguez bought into the sales pitch. "He was a great guy and a great coach. Based on that and the fact that I didn't want to sit out, why go transfer ... when I could stay and play right away in the Big 12 as a starter?" he said.
It's tough to argue with his decision.
Kansas State has a chance to be very good this season. Rodney McGruder, a 6-foot-4 wing that averaged 15.8 points as a junior, is a guy that should end up being a first-team all-Big 12 performer this season. Fellow senior Jordan Henriquez, who had a very strong finish to his junior season, and sophomore Thomas Gibson, who had a tremendous start to his freshman campaign before tailing off once conference play started, anchor a solid front line. With plenty of depth on the perimeter -- Will Spradling, Martavious Irving, Omari Lawrence, Shane Southwell, Nino Williams -- Bruce Weber will have no shortage of quality options at his disposal.
But it's Rodriguez that has the potential to be the difference maker for this team. He's the guy that took over the role of starting point guard by the end of the season, despite, at times, looking like a freshman overwhelmed with the pressure put upon him by Martin's renowned intensity. He's the guy that averaged 8.3 points and team-highs in assists (3.2) and steals (1.3) in just over 21 minutes per game.
There's clearly talent there, but there's also clearly room to grow. Rodriguez led the team with an average of 2.7 turnovers and shot just 36.0 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from three.
"My assist-to-turnover ratio," Rodriguez said in regards to what he wants to improve on the most this season. "I'll be playing more calm and more under control. My shot has also been more consistent, I've been working on that."
"My goal is to compete with any other guard in the Big 12, we've got great guards. I'm just willing to compete against anybody and if I play under control, I think it should be fine."
Part of that improvement will come naturally. There is a reason that the biggest jump that college basketball players make tends to be between their freshman and sophomore seasons. They have a year of experience and maturity under their belt. They know the speed and the strength required to be successful at that level. And they know just how hard they have to work to achieve their goals.
There's more to it for Rodriguez, however. On the one hand, Weber runs a system that will be much more free-flowing and flexible than Martin's, allowing the players more freedom to create within the framework of the offense. That should be beneficial to his style of play. It's also worth noting that, cliches aside, many of the mistakes that Rodriguez made last season could be classified as "freshman mistakes". Overpenetration. Subpar shot selection. Failing to locate an open man. Those are things that can be taught and practiced and improved. Rodriguez's ability to create off the dribble and finish in the lane among bigger defenders is a natural talent.
It showed during Kansas State's trip to Brazil in August. The Wildcats went just 2-2 while going up against club teams that featured professionals in their mid-to-late-20's, but Rodriguez was a bright spot. He finished with averages of 10.3 points, 4.8 assists and 2.3 steals on the trip, all team-highs.
Kansas State is a sleeper in the Big 12, a team with talent and size, experience and depth. The fact that Martin left this group to take over a program that won't be competing for league titles for a while makes you wonder just how deep his disconnect with the administration ran. While Martin may not be coaching him anymore, it's a safe-bet that Martin will be watching and cheering for Rodriguez from South Carolina.
"Him and I understand that our relationship was a friendship, but that this is business, too," Rodriguez said. "He had to make a decision to leave, and I told him I respected him and I supported him. When it was my time to pick what I wanted to do and what was best for me, he respected it, too."