First, it was a homecoming for Jordan Henriquez, Shane Southwell and Omari Lawrence when they returned to New York City for the NIT event in Madison Square Garden last month, and this past weekend it was Rodney McGruder's turn to go play in front of the home folks.
The K-State senior was a smashing success with his team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds in the Wildcats victory over George Washington.
"It was exciting because a lot of my family saw me play for the first time in college," said McGruder, who had 60-plus fans in attendance. McGruder played the first three years of high school hoops at D.C.'s Archbishop Carroll High School before finishing his career at Arlington Country Day Prep School in Florida.
"I grew up a Georgetown fan because of Allen Everson, but my family thought it would be better to get away," said McGruder, who added that he was not recruited by his favorite Hoya team. "I listened to them (parents) and it's been great."
Great for player McGruder, and great for team Kansas State.
McGruder played in 33 games as a freshman when he averaged 3.9 points and shot 45 percent from the field while playing just over 12 minutes per game.
As a sophomore, he started all 34 games and was third-team All-Big 12 with his 11.1 scoring average on 44 percent shooting. At 6-foot-4 McGruder snared 5.9 rebounds per game to tie him with Desmond Davis ad Keith Amerson as the shortest players in KSU history to be the leading rebounder in a given season.
Last year, McGruder started all 33 games and was name second-team All-Big 12 after averaging 15 points on 46 percent shooting.
That gives McGruder 108 Wildcat games with 75 of those being starts. With an injury-free senior season, he will break Jacob Pullen's school record of 135 games and his current run of 75 consecutive starts has him in fourth place, just ahead of Ed Nealy.
In addition, McGruder stands as one of only eight KSU players to have scored at least 1,100 points and snared 500 rebounds. The others in that select company are Rolando Blackman, Bob Boozer, Cartier Martin, Ed Nealy, Jamar Samuels, Jack Parr and Willie Murrell.
Today, coach Bruce Weber says of McGruder, "He's the face of the program. He's the guy on the front of the poster. He's our go-to guy and you need your best players to play well. The last two weeks he's been the best player on the floor, which is good."
On his season to date, McGruder, who is averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds, said, "I'm getting more comfortable and continue to just give my best. I think my game is just fine. Early I was probably thinking too much. I think my game is right there. I just need to make sure I take the easy play and not try to do too much."
Could part of that be from being a senior and returning as the club's leading scorer?
"I wouldn't say that," said McGruder. "It's just the case of a new offense and learning to make the right reads."
But the fact is, McGruder has been in twin figures in only four of the Wildcats' seven games. In the lone loss of the year to Michigan in the title game of the NIT, he scored 16 points, but 14 of those came in the final minutes when the game had already been decided.
While the player refuse to admit that he's been feeling the senior pressure, Weber said, "I think he has. I don't think there's any doubt." But Weber also pointed out that last year through 12 games McGruder was "… shooting just 38 percent, 20 something from, and 50 percent from the line."
This year in eight games, he's hitting 42 percent from the field, but only 25 percent (6 of 24) from 3-point range to go along with 75 percent from the foul stripe.
Laughing, Weber said, "Maybe he's a guy who needs a little time, but I hope it comes quicker than 12 games."
Weber said of McGruder's improvement through KSU's 7-1 start to the year, "He just needs to learn how to get open. How to read screens, when to change his speed, and how to use angles to the basket.
"Since the Michigan game, we've taken time each day to focus with each guy on two or three things where they need to get better. It won't happen in one or two weeks, but it can make a difference over a month. And if each guy does get better, we're going to be a better team," said Weber. "With Rodney, we're just trying to work to get open shots, and then take them."