Angel Rodriguez Transfer Puts Bruce Weber in a Tough SpotPosted by Chris Johnson on April 24th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
As puzzling as Frank Martin’s decision to leave Kansas State for longtime SEC doormat South Carolina looked last season, and however easily the abrupt departure of an energetic and charismatic sideline presence like Martin could have sent Kansas State into a major funk, the Wildcats wasted no time avoiding any such doomsday scenario by filling the vacancy with deposed Illinois coach Bruce Weber. Whatever the hire lacked in glitz and glamour – and sure, Weber was no one’s idea of a “sexy” coaching commodity – it made up for in stylistic fit. Weber preaches good, hard, physical half-court defense. Kansas State played good, hard, half-court defense under Martin. The disciplined approach at that end of the floor was an assumed feature of the coaching transition: Weber would advance Martin’s defensive ambitions with Martin’s players. Everything would fall into place, Weber would stoke massive excitement among a rabid Little Manhattan fan base in his first year and the Wildcats would keep on going on with nary a concern for their since-defected laser-eyed head coach.
The formula wasn’t predictively ideal – Kansas State played top-25-level offense in 2012, per KenPom’s per-possession ranks, but finished 63rd in defensive efficiency – but the Wildcats did, as envisioned, win big in Weber’s first year on the job. Rodney McGruder led a better-than-expected offense, Jordan Henriquez protected the rim and the Wildcats finished the regular season with a share of the Big 12 title. The transition was complete. Weber had smoothed over a nasty divorce with a high-win season, a favorable NCAA Tournament seed and Self-era-unprecedented Big 12 hardware to boot. It was almost perfect.
Instant success didn’t spare Weber of the usual criticisms, the creeping suspicion that the Wildcats could never become a consistent winner under a coach who, after taking Bill Self’s Illinois recruits to the national championship game in 2005, never recaptured the immediate success that generated so much positive hype during his initial Deron Williams and Luther Head-led run. It was a harsh judgment to make, but not an unfair one. Could Weber take Frank Martin’s defense-first formula and make it work with his own players? Is K-State’s perpetual little-brother in-state existence a natural ceiling on the Wildcats’ trajectory? What will Weber do when his players don’t get the message, when his rigid style doesn’t mesh with the offensively-slanted majority in today’s recruiting ranks?
Any and all of those situations could present themselves at any point in time, and Weber will need to prove he can handle the heat, lest another Champaign-esque flameout further tarnish an already diminished coaching stature. Weber’s first bout with real-live adversity came tumbling down the newswire on Monday, and the fallout could exacerbate the intensity of a show-me second season. Sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez, one of K-State’s most talented projected returnees and a second-team All-Big 12 recipient last season, intends to leave K-State in the interest of relocating closer to his Puerto Rico-stationed family.
The fallout, both in the short- and long-term, can go one of two ways. Weber can rally the troops and mount another title run with a depleted roster – McGruder, Henriquez and guard Martavious Irving are all gone – and the classic Weber-critiques about winning with his predecessor’s players, completing merely half (the winning, not the recruiting) of the massive enterprise that is head-coaching a high-profile Division I program and deteriorating personal connections with players in times of adversity will be silenced once and for all. The other option, Weber failing to reboot his charges for another contending season in a watered-down Big 12, is completely possible, and Weber is just as inclined to create much of the same general programmatic ennui that drove deeper and deeper into the groundswell of Illini fan rancor that contributed to his eventual dismissal.
Less than two years into his new job, his chance to leave behind a disheartening conclusion in Champaign and truly take the reins of a small but potentially buoyant K-State program, Weber will need tactical acumen and spiritual motivation and the timely blessing of a talent-drained Big 12 to get the most out of a prospectively dreary season. Kansas State’s chances of challenging Kansas or Oklahoma State for a conference title were low to begin with. Rodriguez’s departure aggravates the situation and makes Weber’s second season that much more daunting. If Weber’s coaching reputation truly is built on tactical wisdom and defensive intellect – and not catching lightning in a bottle with a former coach’s five-star recruits – the Wildcats will bypass this wart with minimal negative after-effects. This is Weber’s opportunity to remove the noise and get Kansas State and the rest of the college basketball world to focus on the signal: his ability to coach the game itself.