Here are my thoughts from K-State’s 75-69 win over Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament Second Round.
There are many ways to describe this sentiment. Jerome Tang always tells the story of being told that the “best coaches get the ball to their best players.” Others would say “big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.” I like to describe it efficiently as “you need your stars to be stars.”
The Wildcats of K-State got that on Sunday against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament win. Markquis Nowell is the clear and obvious star, lighting up the scoreboard with 27 points, nine assists and zero turnovers after the halftime break. Nowell was the story all season, and I was worried about how Kentucky would use their size and athleticism advantage on Nowell to take him out of the game. I was wrong to worry, the under-sized guard for K-State found a way to get free and score 23 points in the second half and knock down gargantuan threes that were must-haves for the Cats in purple.
And even through struggles in the game, Keyontae Johnson found his star power when it was needed most for K-State in the waning moments of the game. After Ish Massoud’s deep three to take the lead (more on that later), Johnson faced his struggles head-on and worked Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin with a quick dribble and step-back three that put the Wildcats up by five with 1:20 to play.
Johnson and Nowell were K-State’s two best all season and they made the plays they needed to push K-State to another great win in a great season.
N’GUESSAN AND TOMLIN STEP UP
As big as Nowell and Johnson’s moments were in K-State’s win on Sunday, a lot of praise needs to be thrown the way of K-State bigs Nae’Qwan Tomlin and David N’Guessan. Without a doubt, they had their best games of the season.
N’Guessan’s play blew me away with how he was able to help K-State stand tall on defense and help slow down Oscar Tshiebwe. Don’t worry, Tshiebwe still “got his” on Sunday, 25 points and 18 rebounds against K-State, but they made him work hard for all those numbers and he was also the culprit of five turnovers by Kentucky.
One of K-State’s transfers from the offseason, N’Guessan had highs and lows through the year. He was injured and missed time, came back and provided a boost in moments, but also faced criticism (from me included) for getting bullied down low by other bigs. That was not what happened on Sunday in Greensboro, N’Guessan stood tall and played tough while busting his tail in every way imaginable. I was blown away by what N’Guessan gave for K-State on Sunday and if he does that next week at Madison Square Garden the Wildcats’ ceiling rises even more.
Tomlin also had a big day for K-State, using his length and athleticism to help quell Tshiebwe and Kentucky’s efforts around the rim. Kentucky was 19/29 on shots at the rim, while K-State was 20/26. Tomlin and N’Guessan both contributed to the defense and offense in those respective categories.
PLAYING WITHOUT FEAR AND WITH CONFIDENCE
Many that had ties to Lexington, Kentucky were quick to try and use the K-State players’ words on Saturday about how they approached facing Kentucky and their players as “bulletin board” material. They mocked the Wildcats for thinking that Kentucky was just another team on the schedule.
Yet again when the Wildcats were doubted, they answered the call and handed out the embarrassment. Playing without fear and with loads of confidence led to the Wildcats attacking Tshiebwe head-on, not worrying about the challenge and embracing it.
Then the Wildcats didn’t back down when Kentucky made their runs and took the lead in both first and second halves. Ultimately in the end, Nowell, Johnson and Ish Massoud all hit their big shots because of confidence and the absence of fear. To combine those in one word – belief. That all comes from Jerome Tang and the top-notch staff he has assembled in his first year as the head coach at Kansas State.
Prior to the game with Kentucky, turnovers were going to be a massive story for K-State. Kentucky was forcing turnovers at a low rate, just 16.7% of possessions, and outside the top 200 in the country. Meanwhile, K-State had suffered many losses with high turnover games. After a shaky start, K-State settled down and only turned the ball over eight times, and returned the favor by forcing 16 Kentucky turnovers.
The Sweet Sixteen opponent for K-State will be Michigan State who is even worse tat forcing turnovers than Kentucky. The Spartans are 341st in the country by forcing turnovers on just 15.1% of opponent possessions this season, a very good sign if you are K-State.
WHAT THE RECORD BOOK SAYS ABOUT THE WIN
A few notes on K-State’s Second Round win over Kentucky and what it sets up in the Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State:
– 2nd win all-time against Kentucky (2018 Sweet Sixteen)
– K-State advances to their 18th Sweet Sixteen in school history
– Markquis Nowell joins Ja Morant as the only player since 1990 to score 40+ points and dish out 20+ assists prior to the Sweet Sixteen in the first two games of the tournament
– K-State will face Michigan State for the 8th time, as they are 2-5 against the Spartans currently. It will be the first postseason meeting between the two sides.