K-State, Michigan State in Sweet 16: Here’s what you need to know
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Kansas State and Michigan State play Thursday in the Sweet 16 at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden in New York City, and not everyone is impressed.
At least not Michigan State guard Tyson Walker, who grew up in Westbury, a village on Long Island, and is unmoved by a return home.
Asked repeatedly during the Spartans’ Wednesday news conference to talk about what he loves most about home, Walker came up with just about nothing.
“I haven’t told my teammates anything,” Walker said when asked if he’ll share his favorite NYC spots with fellow Spartans. “I don’t have have any favorites. I haven’t really been home in five years, so it’s no different.
“I’m going to try to go home and see my dog. That’s about it.”
Just about everyone else is excited to play in NYC at MSG -- or at least more willing than Walker to fake it. K-State’s New York natives -- Markquis Nowell (Harlem), Tykei Greene (Queens), Ish Massoud (East Harlem) and Nae’Qwan Tomlin (Harlem) -- don’t share Walker’s cynicism about returning home.
Massoud and Tomlin expressed their eagerness following K-State’s second-round win over Kentucky on Sunday, and Nowell was still riding that high on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be fun,” Nowell said of the game scheduled for 5:30 CDT. “I mean, you hear all the great stories about the historic performances of all-time NBA players and the greats. I’m just looking forward to being in this atmosphere and stepping on that court. I never played here. This is my first time.”
What New York means
K-State coach Jerome Tang and Spartans counterpart Tom Izzo agreed that hearing that a player from New York conjures up an idea of how that player will carry himself. Since many New York players grew up refining their games as much on the playgrounds as on the hardwood, they often bring with them a no-fear mentality.
That mentality is seen in Nowell, K-State’s 5-foot-8, 180-pound fearless point guard. And Izzo notices it in Walker, too.
“I think sometimes the New York swagger is a very cocky swagger, and sometimes that’s good,” Izzo said. “(Walker) is kind of the happy medium. He’s got enough cockiness to be confident, and yet he’s an unbelievable kid.
“...I don’t know if it’s New York City. Unfortunately, I don’t recruit enough out here. But Tyson would definitely give me a lot of reasons. He’s been an unbelievable kid.”
Nowell connects so deeply with his hometown that he calls himself Mr. New York City on social media and uses the hashtag #IRunNewYork.
It took a while for Nowell to live up to those proclamations. After growing up at 109th and Lexington in Harlem and becoming a three-star recruit out of The Patrick School in Hillsdale, N.J., Nowell starred in the Sun Belt Conference with Little Rock for three seasons. On the bigger stage that is the Big 12, Nowell reached another level. Especially this season, his second at K-State and fifth college season overall. He was a third-team AP All-American.
“It’s just the confidence I have in myself,” Nowell said. “I made a promise to myself back when I was in high school that I was going to do anything and everything in my power to be the best player that came out of New York. So I kind of keep that edge and that kind of just reminds me every day that I wake up that I still have more work to do.
“Guys like Carmelo (Anthony), Bernard King and all the greats came out of New York so that just keeps me grounded and keeps me working hard.”
Battle of the backcourts
The outcome of Thursday’s game is likely to be determined by the play of the guards, each team’s greatest strength.
If K-State doesn’t have the best backcourt of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament in Nowell and Keyontae Johnson, who’s officially a forward but who handles the ball frequently, Michigan State has an argument.
The Spartans boast the efficient trio of Walker, Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard, a group of standout two-way players who remind some of the national championship-winning MSU duo of Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell 23 years ago.
“We had (then) two defenders that were off the charts, and now we have three guys that can really guard the ball,” Izzo said.
Offensively, the Spartans present a challenge with their pace, offsetting a relative lack of size by playing fast and giving opponents few chances to relax. The Wildcats hope to nullify any advantage by guarding closely and giving opportunities for the prime playmakers -- Nowell and Johnson -- to make plays.
“It’s not the first time I’ve gone against a Michigan State team,” said Tang, K-State’s first-year coach who was a longtime assistant at Baylor. “And one of the things that’s super impressive is how quickly they get the ball out of the net and up the floor after the other team scores. They’ve got really good players that do those things. So that makes it really hard.”
Izzo and Tang took similar paths to become head coaches, both learning as assistants under coaches who won national championships.
Izzo was with Jud Heathcote at Michigan State for 12 years before elevating to head coach. In that span, from 1983-95, he learned that taking just any head coaching job shouldn’t be the goal of an assistant.
“I remember Jud saying one time, ‘Would you rather take a smaller job just so you can say you’re the head coach, or would you rather prepare for Indiana and Michigan and Purdue (Big 10 Conference powerhouses) every day?’ I think that helped me. I think (Baylor coach) Scott Drew really helped Jerome. They built that program. They built it together just like I built mine with my assistants over the years.”
In these parts, Tang’s journey is well-documented. He was with Drew for 19 years and rarely -- if ever -- mentioned when coaching vacancies came up. Then Kansas State athletic Director Gene Taylor took a chance on Tang.
Safe to say the path taken was best for both coaches. Izzo won a title in 2000 and has made eight Final Four appearances, while Tang has exceeded even the wildest year-one expectations.
“I was blessed to work with Scott, and he did a great job of helping prepare me for this,” Tang said. “Never treated me as an assistant, always told me to act like a head coach, treat the program like it was mine. I believe that when you’re with guys like Jud Heathcote and Scott Drew, those Hall of Famers help prepare you. You learn so much from them that you are ready for this.”
K-State’s roster was built almost exclusively through the transfer portal. Tang inherited two players -- Massoud and Nowell -- who came to K-State from Wake Forest and Little Rock. Tang found the rest during his only offseason as a head coach so far.
The most important of those transfers is Johnson, who was the SEC preseason player of the year in 2020 at Florida. The following month, he collapsed on the court during a game, and it was doubtful whether he’d play again.
He has not only played for K-State this season, two years after his collapse, but he has starred, creating a dynamic pairing with Nowell.
The rest of K-State’s roster comes from places like LSU, Arkansas State, Tallahassee Community College, Mississippi State, Stony Brook, Virginia Tech and Chipola College.
“I’m not going to do into detail on (the transfer portal strategy) because it gives the formula away to other people, and we all have to live in the portal,” Tang said. “But you know for me, the No. 1 thing I looked for was winners and guys who had won in high school and college. Because winners know it takes a certain level of sacrifice in order to win, so for me that was the most important thing.”
The Spartans don’t feature as many transfers but one of them, Walker, who previously played at Northeastern, is a major reason why MSU is still playing.
“He works,” Izzo said of Walker. “I think he’s hungry, too. I think some guys that are at this level ... there’s too much entitlement. He’s not entitled. I absolutely love that about him. He wasn’t entitled at all, and if you could have heard his speech after the Duke game, it was kind of about that.”
Johnson passed up a $5 million insurance policy to continue playing basketball, even as it was a process to get cleared after his collapse.
After the near-death experience that seemingly ended his career, Johnson remained with the team at Florida, sitting on the bench with his teammates. As the decision on the insurance policy hovered over him, Johnson graduated from Florida last May and entered the transfer portal. He was finally cleared and transferred to K-State last August.
He became, along with Nowell, K-State’s most indispensable player, joining Nowell as a third-team All-American.
“I just had the right circle around me, just my parents, the athletic trainer(s) at Florida and K-State,” Johnson said. “When I was going through the situation, we just found the right doctors, the best doctors in the world to figure out my situation. And every doctor’s appointment I went to, everything was getting clear. Just the faith, trust in God, just knowing that He had the right path for me, and we just followed His lead and take it day by day.”
Johnson specifically mentioned Dr. Michael Ackerman, a Mayo Clinic physician who deals with heart issues including arrhythmias, as someone who guided his recovery.
Not a little kid anymore
Even after K-State beat his Kentucky Wildcats, UK coach John Calipari didn’t seem to garner much respect for Nowell -- who, if you hadn’t noticed, isn’t tall.
In describing a play following Sunday’s game, Calipari, referring to Nowell, said, “the little kid makes a three.” It was seen as dismissive and maybe a little bit derogatory.
Calipari apologized to Nowell, who was quick to forgive.
“I spoke to Coach Cal,” Nowell said. “He DM’d me after the game and apologized for his comment that he wasn’t really thinking straight after the game. But he congratulated me on a good game, on a great game. ...It was a cool exchange. Shout out to Coach Cal for reaching out to me. That was really big.”
Comments about his height are nothing new for Nowell, who has largely quieted the whispers to the tune of 1,891 college points and counting.
“Heart over height means, it’s a slogan that I live by,” he said. “You don’t determine somebody’s destiny because of their height. You determine it by their heart and their passion. That’s something that I live by and that I play my game after. Heart is the biggest thing, and I noticed that as a young kid, and I live by that.”
Nowell and Walker have been opponents before -- in high school, when Walker played at Christ The King High in Queens. They also ran into each other playing elsewhere.
“I grew up playing in parks with him,” Nowell said. “I just want to give a big shout out to New York City for breeding tough and gritty guards and just give him a shout out. We are rivals, but we grew up playing against each other, and when we step on the court, it’s going to be nothing but competition. But now that I’m here, I just want to congratulate him on where he came from and how he got better. And now we’re both on this stage.”
Even though he’s taken a team to the Sweet 16 in his first season as a head coach, it appears not everyone involved in the game knows about Tang.
The transcriber of Wednesday’s press conference referred to Tang as “Jeremy” throughout the transcription.
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