PITTSBURGH -- Kansas State fans might not like this too much, but the Wildcats' advancement to the NCAA tournament's round of 32 Thursday can be credited, in part, to their arch rival.
On a day where the Wildcats' perimeter offense more or less ended with Rodney McGruder and their patented rebounding dominance was completely absent, it was the all-around complementary game of condor-like center Jordan Henriquez that helped push K-State past stubborn Southern Miss, 70-64. And for that, Wildcats fans may have to thank ... Kansas?
"I remember the coaches talking to me before the KU game, and specifically talking about Jeff Withey, how he was a player a year ago who didn't get on the floor and much of a [big] performer that he is now, how much of a difference he is on the floor offensively and defensively," Henriquez said after his 15-point, nine-rebound, six-block effort. "Something triggered in my mind and from that point on, I've tried to be as consistent as I can."
It's been a long run for Henriquez to become a consistent factor in Manhattan. A non-qualifier out of high school, he prepped for a year at The Winchendon School in Massachusetts and then spent his first two seasons playing reserve minutes, mostly to provide defensive and rebounding presence. He only had a total of four double-digit scoring games in his first two seasons.
Henriquez started to emerge at the beginning of this campaign, notably with a 17-point, 8-rebound effort against rugged Alabama in December, but eventually, a midseason attitude adjustment was needed. Head coach Frank Martin played him just eight minutes against Oklahoma and Texas and then suspended Henriquez for "conduct detrimental to the team." He missed the game at Oklahoma State on Jan. 21.
"He almost had a couple of [double]-doubles early in the year. Then, you know, he's a kid. He got a little full of himself and he took a step back," Martin said. "He refocused. That trust that I have in him and he's got in us has allowed him to refocus. ... [The suspension] was just something we had to do to get him back in the right place. Ever since then, he's been awesome."
His attitude may have been better, but Henriquez didn't resurface until that aforementioned game against Kansas, when he blocked six shots in 26 minutes on the floor in a 59-53 home loss. Since then, the Wildcats are 5-2 against strong competition, and Henriquez has been a huge factor in four of the last five. Thursday's effort was his fourth double-digit scoring game since Feb. 25, fourth with at least eight rebounds and third with at least four blocks. And that doesn't even account for defensive presence and absurd length that's not officially measured in the box score.
Henriquez blocked those six shots against the Golden Eagles, but altered more and also provided a huge safety net in the lane that allowed K-State's guards to press up more effectively on Southern Miss, limiting their effectiveness off the dribble. Martin noted afterward that the times when K-State was beaten off the dribble, it wasn't a complete blowby, which gave Henriquez enough time to rotate over and impact the play.
"We knew they were a big dribble-drive team," Wildcats guard Will Spradling added. "I pressed a lot that we were going to be able to pressure the ball and after we got beat, we'd have someone there to protect the goal. That took a lot of pressure off the guards."
In the game's final seconds, as teammate Jamar Samuels was trying to ice things from the line, Henriquez stood alone at the other free throw line, a small smile creasing his face. His arms dangled, lightly clapping, still impossibly long and menacing. The visual was compelling. If the Wildcats do face top-seeded Syracuse in the next round, much of the talk will center on the shot-blocking 7-footer who's not there, but perhaps it should center on the one who will be.
K-State fans wouldn't mind that. Even if they might have to say a quiet thank you to a Jayhawk.