GREENSBORO, NC. — About 11 months ago, Jerome Tang was approached by one of his most well-connected recruiting staffers, Jareem Dowling. Dowling had found a little-known player that he thought would potentially be an uber-impactful piece to Tang’s first team at Kansas State.
Dowling showed Tang tape a thin 6-foot-10, skilled, athletic player who thrived at Chipola Junior college in 2021-22, but hadn’t played much-organized basketball. The raw tools the prospect played with on the screen made Tang ooohhhh and aaahhhh at the raw talent on his computer screen.
The player was Nae’Qwan Tomlin. And on Friday night, Tomlin helped No. 3 Kansas State secure their first NCAA Tournament victory since 2018 when he provided the Wildcats with 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field in just 20 minutes.
Growing up in Harlem, New York, Tomlin didn’t play on organized basketball teams. Instead, he played on the famous blacktop concrete outdoor courts with his closest friends. They played pick-up games against others on the hottest summer days and the coldest winter evenings. Tomlin didn’t play basketball for an official team until he enrolled at Monroe Community College in 2019-20.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Tomlin didn’t play organized basketball growing up. Maybe if Tomlin did play for a youth team he wouldn’t have been able to develop the ball-handling, passing and defensive skills that make Tomlin a unique talent. Maybe some dumb coach would have put Tomlin — likely one of the tallest kids in his grade growing up — on the block and taught him to play with his back to the basket. Taught him to be a traditional big man, something Tomlin most certainly is not meant to be.
Maybe none of those things happen. Nobody will ever know. What is known, is that Tomlin lived a “dream” on Friday night in Kansas State’s 77-65 win over Montana State, which helped K-State set up a date with No. 6 seed Kentucky in the Round of 32 on Sunday afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum.
“I never imagined me playing in this kind of situation,” Tomlin said with his eyes wide open a large smile across his face. “Especially winning in March madness. This is the most viewed thing in America right now. So it’s a dream come true.”
Tomlin’s night started more like a nightmare. He was whistled for an illegal screen just over two minutes into the game, and Tang was forced to remove him out of fear that his often foul-prone player would get a second early whistle. With 13:42 left in the first half — Tomlin did. He fouled Montana State’s best scorer — RaeQuan Battle — in the act of shooting a 3-pointer that later turned into a 4-point play, giving Montana State a 12-10 lead.
To the bench, Tomlin went.
He would remain on the bench for much of the next 13 minutes, though he did play a couple of possessions with about nine minutes left in the first half before being removed again for the final 8:36.
in the halftime locker room, Kansas State held a six-point lead with stars
both scoring 12 first-half points for the Wildcats. Tang’s team allowed Montana State to score the last three points of the first half, making a potential double-digit Kansas State lead instead just a faint two-possession lead. Nowell and Johnson — the team’s foremost leaders — demanded that Tomlin be aggressive in the second half.
“They tried to keep me level-headed and try to keep my head up,” Tomlin said, “because when I get in foul trouble, I get down on myself. So they just try to say that the second half is going to be your half, you’re going to play smart, stay out of foul trouble.”
And in the second half, it was Tomlin’s half. He scored on K-State’s first possession of the second half, an alley-oop pass that he gently flipped over his head for a soft bucket. With 16:37 left he converted on a nifty layup, sending the defender about as high in the air as Tomlin’s vertical. He then forced a steal on the defensive end and after a scamper for the loose ball, Tomlin corraled it and finished another layup, giving K-State a 10-point advantage.
“It’s a big emphasis on getting to the paint,” Nowell said. “When you get to the paint, it draws so much attention and we have dynamic players, dynamic guards that can get to te paint and create for each other.”
Tomlin’s contribution to a toothy run to start the second half didn’t thrash any hopes Montana State had to come back in the game. But they severely bloodied them. Kansas State, though, kept control of a three-possession lead the remainder of the way and Tominling converted on two more layups, a dunk and a free throw to score all 13 of his points.
“We just want him to be aggressive the offensive end,” Tang said. “And he was in the second half because he got to play [because he wasn’t in foul trouble].”
Ten times entering Friday’s game against Montana State, Tomlin recorded at least four fouls, including four disqualifications because of personal fouls.
Kansas State is asking Tomlin to be aggressive while playing, but they’re also desperate for him to avoid getting into foul trouble. It’s something an inexperienced player often struggles with and because Tomlin’s experience level isn’t high, he’s often guilty of mistakes that lead to fouls.
“He’s still figuring that part out,” Nowell said. “He’s trying to not use his hands as much. but that second half gave him a boost of confidence, and hopefully, that transfers over to Kentucky.”
Despite being a higher seed, Kansas State did not open as the betting favorite for Sunday’s game, and Kansas State has the seventh-best odds of any team remaining in the East Region to qualify for the Final Four. Kentucky, who is 22-11 on the season, has the third-best odds behind only Duke and Marquette, according to FanDuel.
But Tang thinks that if Tomlin is able to avoid foul trouble on Sunday and play significant minutes that his team has a chance to qualify for the Sweet 16 next week at Madison Square Garden in New York.
If we can get 30 (minutes) out of him,” Tang said, “Then we might be really good.”