Ever since he arrived at Kansas State, Angel Rodriguez has been compared to someone else.
Some say he is the next Denis Clemente, because both players were born in Puerto Rico and went on to become Wildcats point guards. Others insist he is the next J.J. Barrea, because they share the same body type and were recruited by coach Frank Martin.
Matt Figger, a K-State assistant coach, thinks both comparisons are off. After working with Rodriguez daily for a full season, he says Rodriguez is in a class of his own.
“He’s a great facilitator,” Figger said. “He gets himself and the team going.”
Figger has reminded Rodriguez to use his playing style — great speed and intensity — to help break down defenses. When he takes open shots and makes smart passes, K-State is usually at its best. He leads the team in assists and steals.
When he tries to do too much, the team suffers. He also leads the team with 78 turnovers.
“We just try to tell him, ‘Don’t be Brett Favre. Just be yourself. Hit singles. You don’t have to go for home runs,’ ” Figger said. “When he calms down and plays within himself, that’s all we need.”
Rodriguez, a 5-foot-10 freshman, hopes to do exactly that when he makes his first start today in the NCAA Tournament against Southern Mississippi. Not many teams rely on a freshman point guard at this stage of the season. But Rodriguez feels as if he has been here before.
“Last year, I wasn’t here yet, but I watched all of Kansas State’s games in the tournament,” Rodriguez said. “I felt like I was a part of it. Every time they won, I was so happy. When they lost, I was heartbroken, because I hate losing. I felt like my season was done.
“I just don’t like losing. I don’t want to go home. I can’t wait to play. I’m going to bring it. I feel pretty confident with my game right now. I’m ready to compete with anybody.”
Rodriguez averaged eight points and 3.2 assists a game in the regular season, starting as a reserve and playing his way into the starting lineup. He scored 17 points in a win over Southern Illinois, 16 in a win over Texas-El Paso, 15 in a win at Baylor and dished out eight assists in a loss to Iowa State.
He also had a few forgettable nights. He played so poorly during a home game against Baylor that Martin benched him next time out against Oklahoma. He played 27 scoreless minutes in a loss to Kansas.
Martin has stuck with him through all the ups and downs.
“As he went through his growing moments, which all freshmen go through … he always stayed the course,” Martin said. “He never came in and hung his head or ever came in and disrespected the decisions that were made the day before.”
Martavious Irving, who lost a spot in the starting lineup to Rodriguez, said his young teammate is no longer a freshman.
“Right now, he’s a sophomore,” Irving said. “He has calmed down and played the way we need him to.”