It’s August 2022 and Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell sits in the front seat of his car with Keyontae Johnson. Nowell recently arrived at the residence of his first-year head coach Jerome Tang to scoop Johnson after the Florida transfer target and his family completed a meal with Tang to discuss Johnson’s potential transfer to Kansas State for the 2022-23 season.
For more than half an hour, Nowell and Johnson discuss what their goals are for what is likely to be their last season of college basketball. For Nowell, it’s about being named Big 12 Player of the Week, ambitiously hoping to average 10.0 assists a game.
“It was one of the best visits that I ever had in college. After that, I knew where I wanted to end up,” Johnson said.
“I just tried to do my part,” Nowell said of helping recruit Johnson. “Anything that I could do to help this team win or help the coaching staff, I was there right away. The recruiting process was me wanting to play with good teammates and I knew that the coaches couldn’t do everything on their own. The players had to step in.”
Johnson’s goals are different. He wants to return the form of the player who was named the Preseason SEC Player of the Year prior to the 2020-21 season, he wants to be an efficient scorer and he wants to do it in the best conference college basketball has to offer, the Big 12 — home of the last two national champions, 2021 Baylor and 2022 Kansas. Though, Johnson’s goals are more far-reaching if a narrator were telling his story about returning from a tragic accident that nearly ended his basketball career —- and life.
Recruiting Johnson out of the transfer portal was a challenge. Yes, every player needs to pass a physical, have class credits must be transferred to their new school and many more hoops need to be jumped through.
“I’m not really on my phone answering calls. He talked to my parents. My parents were always telling me that Coach Tang or somebody from the staff called,” Johnson said.
But Johnson’s situation is inherently one-of-a-kind. His heart conditions required him to be cleared to play basketball again by various sets of doctors, a risk many other schools weren’t interested in taking on. Kansas State’s doctors did permit Johnson to play again, though there are strict directives that need to be followed to ensure his safety.
“I don’t worry about it as much. I just got out there and play now,” Johnson said of his heart condition. “I feel like God put me in this position to play. There’s no way I can turn around now. Take it day by day and I know I have the right health care around me.”
Potentially making it easier for Kansas State to make Johnson a late addition to their roster is Tang’s experience of coaching players with heart complications. In Tang’s 19 seasons as an assistant coach at Baylor, he helped coach college stars Jared Butler and Isaiah Austin.
“Coach Tang, he had a vision of how he saw me playing this year and he told me what he wanted me to come in for and he said that he knew this was the right spot,” Johnson said. “They call this a pro league. As Preseason Player of the Year in the SEC, I felt if I was that in that conference I should be able to showcase myself in the best conference in college basketball. Betting on myself and trusting in Coach Tang.”
On Aug. 20, Johnson committed to Kansas State, giving the Wildcats a potential star — should he return to the player that was once a projected first-round NBA Draft selection.
“I saw him shoot and as a fast point guard, and that’s something, just thinking, that if I come to this team that’s somebody I can pass to that I know is going to score it in tough moments as well,” Johnson said of Nowell. “Then we came to the gym and got shots up together, so that’s how I knew he was a point guard that was about winning.”
Almost immediately, Johnson did return to form. He scored at least 15 points in seven of Kansas State’s first 10 games. He made 50 percent of his 3-point attempts and was grabbing nearly 6.5 rebounds a game all while playing over 31 minutes per game to start the season.
“I knew right away [he was the missing piece],” Nowell said. “I saw his highlights, I knew him from the start of his career. I knew that if we had him, it would be something special.”
Nowell was something special in the Wildcats’ first 10 games of the season too, averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 assists a game as the lead man in K-State offenses.
“We clicked right away,” Nowell said.
The two stars continued to dominate throughout a weak nonconference schedule, suffering only one loss — at Butler — before opening Big 12 player vs. West Virginia on New Year’s Eve in Manhattan with a win.
Then in back-to-back road wins over ranked Texas and Baylor to open Big 12 play, Kansas the duo combined to score 120 points, dish out 30 assists and grab 22 rebounds in wins that put Kansas State in the top 25 the next week and proved preseason projections of a last-place Big 12 finish wrong.
“He took this team from being to promising,” Nowell said of Johnson. “He’s just a dynamic player, a dynamic scorer. A leader. Somebody that wants to win. We look for that. I’m not sure where we would be (without him).”
With Johnson and Nowell leading, K-State has amassed a 22-7 record and a 10-6 record in Big 12 play. The Wildcats have won three consecutive games, vs. Iowa State, vs. Baylor and at Oklahoma State, ending four losses in five games stretch that saw them lose on the road to the two worst teams in the Big 12 — Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
“I could envision it,” Nowell said of the success this season. ‘I just knew that he was the right coach. I don’t know if it was faith in God or belief in him or the 19 seasons he had at Baylor. I was just 10 toes in. I knew what he was about from his first press conference when he won us all over. From the jump I wanted to help and contribute to winning.”
Winning Wednesday night against Oklahoma in a revenge spot for Kansas State presents an opportunity for Kansas State’s two-star seniors to end their Bramlage Coliseum careers together.
Just like it started in a car in August. Together.