KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 10: Head coach Frank Martin of the Kansas State Wildcats reacts during their quarterfinal game against the Colorado Buffaloes in the 2011 Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on March 10, 2011 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Usually coaches would prefer juniors and seniors to be the most crucial pieces to their teams ultimate success or failure. Unfortunately for Frank Martin that may not be the case this year in Manhattan for his Wildcats.
The 2011-2012 K-State men's basketball season is off to a 2-0 start but unfortunately many Wildcat fans probably have more questions than answers about their team now than they did before the season.
One thing that has been learned though is that for the Wildcats to be truly successful this season they will need big time production and leadership from two key freshmen in Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez.
It has been made clear through the two games that Gipson and Rodriguez will at the very least be key members of the rotation and maybe in Gipson's case a starter. With Jamar Samuels having been suspended for the exhibition opener against Fort Hays as well as the first two official games of the season, Gipson has stepped in and been a starter in both contests. Rodriguez, while not starting, has seen a large portion of minutes as he is currently averaging 18.0 minutes a game.
Each player provides something unique to the K-State roster that frankly no other player can for Frank Martin and his staff.
While Martin has previously liked to compare Rodriguez's game more with J.J. Barea than former Wildcat Denis Clemente, the skills that Clemente provided K-State are what Rodriguez will have to step up and try to emulate this season. Much like Clemente, it is clear through only two games that Rodriguez is the fastest player the Wildcats have with the ball in his hands. The Wildcats look to be somewhat offensively challenged this season with Jacob Pullen no longer around and will need Rodriguez to push the ball hard to try and get some easy transition baskets.
Another aspect that the Wildcats will need Rodriguez to provide is accurate shooting from behind the arc. This was a something that Clemente could do to take pressure off of Pullen and K-State will need Rodriguez to do the same, along with others, to help take the defensive pressure off of Rodney McGruder.
While it is still early the Wildcats half court offense has looked stagnant during times with players simply standing around. As the season progresses Rodriguez should become more comfortable and it will be his responsibility as the point guard to get everyone settled and into their offensive sets. This is definitely not an easy task for a freshman but it is one he must embrace if K-State looks to improve from how they have looked early.
Gipson on the other hand is really the only strong low post presence for K-State. Yes the Wildcats do have two seven footers on the roster in Jordan Henriquez-Roberts and Adrian Diaz but each player is tall and in need of continued weight gain. This is not the case with Gipson as he is a solid 275 pounds, this is his listed weight per K-State anyways.
His toughness in the post will be crucial for K-State as it should alleviate some of the banging on Jamar Samuels which in turn should hopefully keep Samuels fresh. For his part, Samuels reportedly gained weight this offseason in preparation for increased action around the goal but he still is nowhere the size of Gipson.
Besides just providing a large presence down low for K-State, it appears that Gipson will also be counted on to score on a consistent basis. Through the first two games he is averaging in double figures and it appears his teammates feel comfortable dropping the ball down to him in the post. In the Wildcats most recent game against Loyola on Monday night he was the teams leading scorer with 19 points. It is obviously still early but one part of Gipson's game that will have to improve if he is to be heavily counted on for scoring is his free throw shooting as he is a combined 5-12 from the line to start the season.
One factor working against these two players, and all freshmen in the Big 12, is the new round robin schedule format. The new 18 game conference schedule will most likely be a meatgrinder for any player and probably even more so for freshman who have never gone through a full college season.
How well Gipson & Rodriguez continue to progress and when they eventually hit the wall most freshmen experience could very well be the key to K-State's season.