GREENSBORO, N.C. — There’s an inherent belief that the first weekend of March Madness is supposed to captivate an audience with belief in a David versus Goliath mentality. Two days after Fairleigh Dickinson — the shortest team in the tournament — knocked off 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey and No. 1 seeded Purdue, a matchup between Kansas State and Kentucky provided another chance.
Yes, Kansas State was wearing white on Sunday and yes, first-year head coach Jerome Tang will tell you that his team had more dudes than 6th-seeded Kentucky. But the matchup featured a 5-foot-8 point guard and the reigning national player of the year, Oscar Tshiebwe, who used brute force to muscle his way to 25 points and 18 rebounds.
Early in the second half it was senior guard Markquis Nowell who sized up Tshiebwe, pausing for just a brief moment to step back and launch a 3-pointer over the arms of the Kentucky big man. It fell through for K-State’s first made 3-pointer of the game and helped answer an 11-0 run from the group from Lexington with an 8-0 run in favor of the guys from Manhattan.
“We just told each other to trust your work, continue to keep shooting,” Nowell said after Kansas State began the game with 13 straight missed attempts from distance. “It wasn’t like we were shooting bad 3s. They just weren’t falling in the first half.”
With struggles on open 3-point shots plaguing Kansas State early, Tang’s team continued to attack the paint and score in transition. In the first half, Nowell dished a shovel pass in transition to junior forward David N’Guessan for a layup. With K-State trailing 22-19, he hit senior forward Keyontae Johnson in stride with a behind-the-back pass that the Florida transfer would flush home for another dunk. To close the half, he set up junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin with a no-look alley-oop dunk that gave KSU a 29-26 lead at the break.
Late in the second half, the jumpers began to fall. A flurry of 3-pointers fell in the final four minutes as Nowell splashed home a stepback jumper to cut a 60-56 deficit to one and junior forward Ismael Massoud connected from way beyond the arc to give K-State a 64-62 lead.
Without ever coming off the court, playing 40 minutes of high-level basketball, Nowell put on another March masterclass. From the moment Nowell sized up Tshiwebe for the first 3-pointer of the afternoon until the final buzzer, the former Arkansas Little Rock guard scored or assisted on 33 of Kansas State’s last 39 points en route to a 75-69 win.
“I was just in attack mode the second half because I had seen how they were playing me,” said Nowell, who often was dribbling out of double teams to find open teammates or create for himself. “They were playing me for the pass because I dropped a lot of dimes in the first half. I tried to look for my own shot a little bit more and be more aggressive, and I wanted to go to New York.”
Through two NCAA Tournament games, Nowell is averaging 22 points and 11.5 assists per game. The New York, native has made 6 of his 14 attempts from beyond the arc as well. In a time where stars must be stars, nobody has been brighter than Nowell.
“He’s one of a kind,” Johnson said of Nowell, who scored 23 of his 27 points in the second half. “You will not find many 5’8”, 5’7” guards like him to show up in big games like this. Kentucky is a great team, they played hard today. ‘Quis really showed why he played his ass off.”
Oddsmakers didn’t believe in Kansas State heading into Sunday’s game against Kentucky, setting Tang’s squad as a 3-point underdog. And again, early lines ahead of a Sweet 16 matchup are already favoring Tom Izzo and Michigan State, with the Wildcats early 2-point underdogs at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. But belief in this group and belief in Nowell isn’t necessary for success.
“It hasn’t hit me just yet, and I kind of don’t want it to because I don’t want to lose that hunger that I play with,” Nowell said.
Name a great guard who performed at the highest level in the NCAA Tournament and Markquis Nowell’s performance on Sunday is probably on par. Through the first two games of an NCAA Tournament, only Nowell and Ja Morant have tallied 40-plus points and 20-plus assists before the Sweet 16.
When Tang and Nowell met during the off-season, the former Baylor assistant said he promised Nowell he would do everything in his power to put a team worthy of the NCAA Tournament together. Nowell told him it didn’t matter.
“He said, ‘Coach, I don’t care if we have five dudes,’” Tang told reporters following the win. “We’re going to the tournament because Kemba Walker won a national championship with I think three freshmen and two sophomores. With that kind of confidence, it just inspired me to work harder and our staff to work harder. He always believed it, and he helped me believe.”
Given a worthy supporting cast and an All-American running mate in Johnson — who knocked down his own stepback 3-pointer to distance K-State from Kentucky — Nowell is now taking over in March. Heading to New York, the Wildcats — who can only wear white jerseys for the remainder of the East regional — are still employing the underdog mentality.
“We are still underdogs, but don’t look at us that way,” Nowell said. “We are hungry, confident and we want more.”