NEW YORK — Those who follow college basketball from beginning to end, night-in and night-out have known about the Kansas State Wildcats. Picked to finish last in the Big 12 during the preseason, the NCAA Tournament is now a learning ground for the nation.
But while third-seeded K-State has played each game of this tournament with the scripted “Wildcats” font across their white-jersey chests, first-year head coach Jerome Tang’s group have been anything but the favorite. The Wildcats were underdogs against Kentucky in the second round and were underdogs for most of the lead-up to Thursday’s game against Michigan State.
K-State is still introducing itself to America. And on Thursday night, its point guard was re-introducing himself to his city.
“Today was a special one, man,” Harlem native and senior point guard Markquis Nowell said following a 20-point, 19-assist performance that helped K-State defeat seventh-seeded Michigan State, 98-93 in an overtime thriller. Thursday night was the first time Nowell had played a competitive basketball game in New York City in years. “I can’t even explain how I’m feeling right now.”
No one has ever done what Nowell has. The senior guard for the third-seeded Wildcats is becoming the story of March. His 19 assists in the Sweet 16 against the Spartans were the most in NCAA Tournament history and pulled him and the Wildcats to within a game of advancing to the school’s first Final Four in 59 years.
Through three NCAA Tournament games, he’s accumulated 42 assists. No one in the history of the tournament had ever gotten more than 33 through their first three contests.
There have been other New York point guards to have success in this tournament. Perhaps the most infamous is one of Nowell’s favorite players growing up. UConn guard Kemba Walker, who took over in March of 2011, captivating the nation with a run that saw the Huskies cut down the nets — in Houston — as a No. 3 seed. In 2013, Russ Smith helped Louisville take home the title in Atlanta. And this March, Nowell is doing his best to become the next in a long line of courageous products from the city that never sleeps.
Time after time on Thursday night, Michigan State found itself paying attention to who was dribbling the ball rather than their individual defensive assignment.
“All 10 eyes on the defense have to pay attention to him, and that’s what allows everybody else to get open,” Tang said. “It’s not just that he sees it, but they all have to pay attention to him when he has the ball.”
Which is why Nowell was able to tally 10 assists in the first half against the Spartans, dicing up Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s defense via a plethora of backdoor cuts.
“They do a lot of ball watching,” said senior forward
, who was on the receiving end of the 19th and record-breaking assist in overtime. With MSU guard A.J. Hoggard looking toward Nowell near the midcourt logo, Johnson broke to the rim from his corner position.
Soaring through the air, Johnson contorted his body and caught another lob from Nowell, converting the reverse dunk for his 21st and 22nd points of the night and a win over MSU. “(Nowell) has always told me when he drives, just keep cutting. He’s going to look for me.”
And he did. On four of the first six assists during the historic night, it was Nowell delivering the ball to Johnson, who scored a team-high 22 points in the win. By night’s end, seven of the 19 assists were to the former Florida Gator.
“This is probably my career high in assists ever,” Nowell said following his first game at Madison Square Garden. “I had a couple games with 14, a couple games with 17 back in high school. But this one was special, in front of my hometown, in front of the city that loves me. I can’t even put into words how blessed and grateful I am.”
On Thursday night, Nowell competed through some pain. Early in the second half, he drove right and met some MSU resistance in the lane. As the play unfolded, the All-Big 12 First Team selection attempted to leap off his right foot, sending the guard to the end of the bench without putting any weight on it. A tape job, retied shoes and a few minutes of poor Kansas State play later, and Nowell’s lack of on-court presence was felt.
“I just wanted to do it for my teammates,” said Nowell. “I love being out there with these guys, and I wasn’t going to let a little injury like this happen on the basketball court all the time to stop me from playing in the Sweet 16 and advancing to the Elite 8.”
WE REPEAT UNREAL 🤯#KStateMBB x @MrNewYorkCityy
— K-State Men's Basketball (@KStateMBB) March 24, 2023
The tone was set on Thursday from the jump, as K-State secured the opening tip-off and Nowell found Johnson for an alley-oop dunk within the first 15 seconds. From there, it continued, and will continue on Saturday when the Wildcats take on No. 9 Florida Atlantic at 5 p.m. Nowell wound up with 19 of K-State’s 26 assists in the Sweet 16 win, during a game in which the Wildcats assisted on 68 percent of their made shots.
“I’m just trying to get my teammates involved because a lot of guys on the team could do different things,” Nowell said after six Wildcats scored in double figures. “And we’re at our best when we’re sharing the ball, passing the ball around the perimeter and different guys is getting into double figures in the scoring category.”
Nobody was more correct about Nowell and his abilities in late-game situations than Tang. When asked on Senior Night what made him most confident that Nowell and some of the veterans could lead K-State to a Final Four, the first thing that Tang said was that Nowell and Johnson provided a dynamic duo.
That might have been underselling it given what’s transpired so far in Greensboro and New York.
Recently, Nowell was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. He’s second in the nation in assists per game, but he’s the point guard who now is drawing comparisons to Walker. Whether it’s playing at MSG — and hitting a stepback mid-range jumper late in the second half — or the Wildcats 3-seed assignment, the parallels are lining up. Now, K-State has survived an all-time classic, via another other-worldly performance.
“Looking back, I’m sure that’s going to be one of the best college basketball games in history,” said junior forward Ish Massoud, who made four 3-pointers (three of which were assisted on by Nowell) against MSU. “That’s the type of game you grow up watching as a kid. To be part of it, it’s surreal.”
As Walker and the Huskies made their run through the West region in 2011, the 6-foot-1 guard kept stacking star performances. Through three rounds of this tournament, Nowell is a front-runner for Most Outstanding Player.
“This is his city. He’s Mr. NYC for a reason. He showed it tonight,” Massoud said. “It’s his city and nothing he does surprises us. Nineteen assists is a little insane, but it’s Markquis so I expected it.”