GREENSBORO, N.C. — As his players talked about him, Jerome Tang snapped photos of them with his phone.
Kansas State’s Keyontae Johnson, Markquis Nowell and Desi Sills were sitting at a podium at the Greensboro Coliseum during a press conference the day before their NCAA Tournament-opening game against Montana State. In a well-timed moment, a reporter asked them about Tang, the Wildcats’ head coach, as he stood among the media playing amateur photographer.
Tang looked like a proud father embarrassing his sons. But the three players weren’t embarrassed. They showered their head coach with praise.
“Coach Tang just had the right faith in all of us,” Johnson said. “He told us his goal, and we all just bought into it and trusted him.”
Tang — like almost all of his players — is in his first year at Kansas State. In the month of Cinderellas, the Wildcats spent a year transforming from a losing program into a Big Dance surprise. Now they’re a No. 3 seed, hoping to defeat upset-minded MSU on Friday before the clock strikes midnight.
“You dream about this. You go out in your backyard afterwards and shoot shots and imagine you’re in the tournament,” Tang said. “Just to have this opportunity, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your fourth time, it should never get old for you. It’s just a tremendous blessing that we have this chance.”
Kansas State made the 2019 NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed, and the Wildcats lost to 13th-seeded UC Irvine in the first round. They spent the next three seasons under .500, with last year’s 14-17 record being an improvement from the previous two. Only two players from the 2021-22 roster — Nowell and Ismael Massoud — stayed in Manhattan, Kansas, after Tang was hired last March (high school recruit Taj Manning also kept his commitment).
Tang, a longtime Baylor assistant, quickly went searching for talent in the transfer portal. His first signee was Jerrell Colbert, previously of LSU. Next to join were Cam Carter (Mississippi State), Nae’Qwan Tomlin (Chipola College) and David N’Guessan (Virginia Tech). Sills then came over from Arkansas, followed by Abayomi Iyiola (Hofstra) and Tykei Greene (Stony Brook). Kansas State’s final two transfer additions, not including a pair of walk-ons, were Johnson and Anthony Thomas (Tallahassee Community College).
Johnson, previously at Florida, entered the season looking to play his first basketball in almost two seasons. Johnson collapsed during a game at Florida State on Dec. 12, 2020, due to a heart problem that could’ve been fatal if not for the quick, effective medical attention he received in the FSU arena, according to the New York Times.
After helping the Gators get to the 2019 NCAA Tournament — and win a game — as a No. 10 seed, he entered the 2020-21 season as the SEC preseason player of the year. The medical scare halted that promising career, but it didn’t end it.
This season, Johnson earned Associated Press All-America third-team, All-Big 12 first-team and conference newcomer of the year honors. The 6-foot-6 senior is averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while shooting 51.9% from the field and 41.9% from 3-point range.
Friday’s game against MSU — scheduled for 7:40 p.m. MT — will be Johnson’s first on-court taste of March Madness since 2019.
“Amazing, really. It’s a goal for me,” Johnson said Thursday, adding, “Trying to make a run. All our dreams, we all had the same goal coming. We’re just ready to have fun and show all the K-State fans and make them happy and all our families happy.”
Nowell is also an AP third-team All-American and All-Big 12 first teamer thanks to his 16.8 points per game, 7.7 assists per game and 34.6% 3-point shooting (with endless range). The 5-8 senior is the main reason why the Wildcats are 11th in NCAA men’s basketball in assists per game (16.8).
“They have a lot of NBA players and talent and length on that team, but I think they play really well together,” MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle said Thursday, adding, “(Tang) probably did as well as anybody in the country attacking the portal. To get those guys to play together and to mesh and to have the season they’ve had is phenomenal.”
Sprinkle spotlighted Johnson and Nowell, and he called Tomlin “tremendous.” The 6-10 junior is averaging 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game while shooting 48.6% and leading Kansas State with 27 blocks.
The Wildcats rank 144th in Division I in points per game allowed (69), 66th in field goal percentage against (41.9%), 57th in steals per game (7.7) and 230th in blocks per game (2.8). They’re also 38th in turnovers forced per game (14.8) and 16th in 3-point percentage against (30.1%).
“They play so fast. If you turn the ball over, that thing is through the net within two seconds,” Sprinkle said, adding, “Their point guard, he is tremendous. Watching film of him, he has some of the quickest hands I’ve seen. If you cross over or you put that ball in front of him, it’s gone. Then their length and their athleticism at the rim, which a lot of Power Fives have, but they do a tremendous job flying around. Their ball screen defense I think is really good.
“So they make it hard to score over them. You’ve got to be really strong with the basketball and crisp with your passes, or they’re going to turn you over.”
Turnovers will be key to both teams’ chances on Friday. The Wildcats have the 317th-worst turnover rate in the nation (14.3 per game), and they coughed it up 20 times each in a regular season-ending loss at West Virginia and a Big 12 tournament quarterfinal defeat to TCU.
“In the two games that we lost we had 40 turnovers, which is unacceptable. For us, that’s our biggest issue,” Nowell said. “If we can control that, which I think we are, because we want to win that bad, then we’ll be successful.”
Kansas State also committed a combined 38 fouls in the previous two games and sent West Virginia and TCU to the free throw line a combined 46 times. MSU has attempted 23.4 free throws per game this season, good for ninth-most in NCAA Division I.
“Trying to get better and just guarding without fouling and just protecting the ball, not trying to make a home run play,” Johnson said. “Just play simple basketball.”
Despite this being their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, the 2022-23 Bobcats have more March Madness experience than Kansas State. MSU was also a 14 seed last season and lost 97-62 in the first round to third-seeded Texas Tech.
The Wildcats hope their inexperience works to their advantage. Their team full of transfers was picked to finish last in the Big 12 by the league’s coaches before the season. A renewed level of talent combined with an underdog mentality led them to a surprise season. Now, they have realistic Final Four aspirations.
They’re not ready for their fairy tale season to end.
“We know they’re going to be prepared, and we’re going to be prepared. We don’t want them to chase us. We want to be the guys doing the hunting,” Tang said. “Once that ball is tipped, the ball doesn’t care about numbers or who is seeded higher. You’ve got to go make it happen.”
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