Not long after accepting the Kansas State coaching job last March, Jerome Tang faced a major problem.
He had just two players on the roster. Markquis Nowell and Ismael Massoud met Tang over lunch and made a stunning vow.
"I just remember telling them that I would do everything I possibly couldto put a team around them that would give them a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament because I felt like they deserved that," Tang said.
Tang kept the promise.
The third-seeded Wildcats (23-9) are one of the nation's surprise teams, drawing 14th-seeded Montana State (25-9) in the NCAA Tournament East Region on Friday night at Greensboro, N.C.
The biggest score in the roster construction process was landing former Florida star Keyontae Johnson, who had his basketball stay with the Gators end after collapsing on the court during a game in December 2020. Johnson and Nowell were named third-team All-Americans on Tuesday.
Johnson has formed a two-star combo with the 5-foot-8 Nowell. Johnson is averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds while Nowell is contributing 16.8 points and 7.6 assists. Both players earned first-team All-Big 12 honors.
So instead of a long rebuilding season in the Little Apple, Kansas State is thriving and Tang is one of the leading candidates for national coach of the year honors.
"It's always nice when you can live up to your word to the young men that you bring into your program," Tang said.
For Nowell, there was nothing to do but buy in as a fifth-year senior who began his career with three campaigns at Little Rock.
"It's a blessing to see that my faith and hard work have paid off and I get to spend it with the guys I love the most in my final season," said Nowell, who has a school-record 243 assists this season. "I'm going to take it one game at a time. There's nothing different there. Playing on the road in the Big 12 is how I'm going to handle it. March is different. I'm going to embrace it and have fun."
First up for Kansas State is an experienced Montana State squad that has won eight straight games and 17 of its last 19.
Montana State is winless in four NCAA Tournament games and is part of March Madness for the second straight season. The Bobcats also played a Big 12 team last season and were steamrolled 97-62 by Texas Tech.
However, that beating didn't dent coach Danny Sprinkle's enthusiasm.
"We're excited that we play another Big 12 team this year," Sprinkle said.
Montana State has a solid core in first-team All-Big Sky selection RaeQuan Battle (17.4), second-team all-conference pick Jubrile Belo (13.0 ppg, 6.1 rebounds), third-team selection and Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Darius Brown II (60 steals, 9.1 ppg, 4,8 assists) and sixth man Great Osobor (10.0 ppg).
The Bobcats qualified for the tournament by posting an 85-78 victory over Northern Arizona in the Big Sky title game.
Battle and reserve Tyler Patterson each have knocked down 50 3-pointers and figure to receive plenty of opportunities to hoist long-range shots against the Wildcats.
"You have to have multiple guards, you have to have a bunch of guys come off ball screens, and you need guys to make threes," Sprinkle said of how lower seeds can beat a much higher seed. "You have to make seven or eight threes to loosen up the defense."
Brown also has an opinion of what it takes.
"Playing defense has to be our glue, and at this time of year your identity as a team is set," Brown said. "There's nothing new to try or start doing, it's about sticking to what you know and doing it well."
--Field Level Media