Fighting for a name at the front – Update Kansas

By D. Scott Fritchen

The trophy is about 36 inches tall and 18 inches wide and has a light blue stem as if to represent clear water. Three purple palm trees protrude from the center with the words “CAYMAN ISLANDS CLASSIC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT”. The base is black and emblazoned in bold gold lettering: “CHAMPIONS.” The trophy rests firmly on the Kansas State head coach’s left side Jerome Tang, who holds it in his left hand. Tang smiles and forms a Wild Cat symbol with his right hand. He is wearing a black polo shirt with the words “Wildcats” written in purple letters. It’s just after 10pm on a Wednesday at John Gray’s gym in Grand Cayman. “Sandstorm” fills the air and several hundred Kansas State fans chant, “KSU! KSU! KSU!” to the rhythm.


This is K-State men’s basketball in 2022-23, and it’s hard to beat. It’s hard to beat watching Keyontae Johnson stroke a 3-pointer from the corner or power inside the paint. It’s hard to beat Marquis Nowell zipping through at breakneck speed or launching a long 3-pointer. It’s hard to beat watching Desi Sills break into the lane. It’s hard to beat watching Nae’Qwan Tomlin sweeping the court for a monster dunk. These are just a few examples. With less than a month left in this season, we don’t want it to ever end.

 

Kansas State Menâ??s Basketball vs.  LSU, Nov. 23, 2022. Final score: Kansas State 61, LSU 59. (Photo by Lathe Cobb/K-State Sports)

It’s hard to beat Tang’s smile, from Nowell, and chest thumps David N’Guessan and Sills and Johnson parade in a slow undulating dance with their hands crossing their knees. It’s hard to beat players who gather in a circle and chant, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” like a true freshman Dorian Finisterre spins in the middle and waves his hands to the ground. It’s hard to beat the odds — so often the best-laid missions just don’t pan out — but that’s what makes K-State basketball, which some fans call the “Tang Gang,” different.

The Cayman Island Classic trophy is living proof.

“They fought,” says Tang. “I mean, if you’re a member of our K-State family, you should be so proud of what you saw. It was them. It was those guys. And they fought for a name on the front end. And our ceiling is so high . That’s the exciting part.”

Kansas State Menâ??s Basketball vs.  LSU, Nov. 23, 2022. Final score: Kansas State 61, LSU 59. (Photo by Lathe Cobb/K-State Sports)

K-State just came back from a 12-point deficit to defeat LSU 61-59 for its third-ever holiday tournament title — the Wildcats also won the 2018 Paradise Jam and 2011 Diamond Head Classic. It’s been a while since K-State touched a trophy of any kind. But it hasn’t been too long since Tang held the 2021 NCAA Division I National Championship Trophy on a confetti-covered basketball court as Scott Drew’s top assistant at Baylor. And here we are. And K-State is 6-0. And it’s a perfect marriage. And on the eve of the turkey meal, Tang will give thanks.

“I am very grateful to Gene Taylor and President Linton and the K-State family for giving me the opportunity to serve and love these young men,” he says.

Nowell led K-State with 18 points and Johnson and Sills each had 16. They combined for 22 of the Wildcats’ 28 points in a second half in which the team rallied from an 11-point deficit in 17 minutes, 27 seconds. play. The Wildcats allow LSU to score just 18 points in the final 20 minutes.

Kansas State Menâ??s Basketball vs.  LSU, Nov. 23, 2022. Final score: Kansas State 61, LSU 59. (Photo by Lathe Cobb/K-State Sports)

Johnson hit the game-winning shot with 4.7 seconds left. LSU charges back with what appears to be a last-second layup. The problem is that the game clock didn’t start on time. The officials give up the basket. K-State wins.

“Great players make great plays,” says Sills.

There is also a picture accompanying the Wildcats back to Manhattan and possibly beyond, along with the tournament trophy. Tang stands in the room talking to his team Wednesday night after a big win. On a dry-erase board, someone had sketched a basketball in black ink, as if waiting for a painter’s brush to dance across the canvas. And what might that canvas look like in, say, March, when the painter has had time to spend this entire K-State basketball team and what might the strokes look like on a sketched basketball and what might each pickup’s basketball look like?

That perspective will come with time.

For now, perhaps it’s best to focus on the present, so we catch the head coach talking to his team about strength and courage, love and unity – “When things didn’t go right, you stuck together man” he says – and continues – “and you’ve shown how much you love and care for each other and your tenacity; hard people do what? Another right thing. We kept grinding and grinding.”

Standing in the room in front of his team, Tang points above his head to nowhere in particular.

“Our season isn’t about winning, right? This is just one of the steps. So guess what we have to do when we come back? We have to improve one percent every day.”

“I’ll just tell you that the confetti was nice, but we have more.

Tang talked about the elevation of the basketball program when he took the stage at his introductory news conference on March 24. Nowell and junior forward Ismael Massoud they sat at the front of the room with their teammates. One by one over the next month, the teammates disappeared to various destinations until only Nowell and Massoud remained, two New York natives determined to help Tang in the Little Apple.

Kansas State Menâ??s Basketball vs.  LSU, Nov. 23, 2022. Final score: Kansas State 61, LSU 59. (Photo by Lathe Cobb/K-State Sports)

Today, Nowell is the Cayman Islands Classic MVP after putting together the two best performances of his college basketball career. A night after having 12 assists — the most by a K-State player in a game since the great Steve Henson in 1989 — Nowell has 29 points and 11 assists to become just the second player in K-State history to reach 25 points and 10 assists in a match. He had a game-high 18 points, four rebounds and four assists against LSU. Nowell calls the tournament “nothing short of outstanding and amazing” and thanks his coaches and teammates.

“I was happy, but I was more happy that we were holding the trophy together with coach Tang,” he says. “It was a total team effort. Not one person won this thing for us. It was everyone on the coaching staff down to every player on the field.”

It seems like yesterday that Nowell, along with Johnson and Nae’Qwan Tomlin represented K-State at Big 12 Media Days and asked all kinds of questions about Tango and the K-State basketball program. K-State was picked to finish 10thThursday in the Big 12.

Today, K-State is undefeated.

“It’s a crazy journey,” says Nowell. “We just kept the faith. We believed in the coaching staff and they believed in us and to see us 6-0 holding the trophy is special.”

Kansas State Menâ??s Basketball vs.  LSU, Nov. 23, 2022. Final score: Kansas State 61, LSU 59. (Photo by Lathe Cobb/K-State Sports)

Sills, one of the other heroes of the Cayman Islands Classic and who was part of Arkansas’ 2020-21 Elite Eight team, has big plans for this team.

“Personally, the sky’s the limit,” he says. “I feel like we have every piece to be one of the top 25 teams in the country. This is just the beginning. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ll put it aside, but we’ll celebrate it.” and then try to move to the next step from next week.

“We’re trying to make Manhattan something special like it’s always been and go from there.”

They’ve taken their game to international waters and come back as a better team, a tighter team, and that’s maybe the scariest part of it all.

“We have toughness and resilience in us,” says Tang. “We have spurts and we can turn things around really quickly, and that they really love each other and really value our staff. I’ve heard them say things that we’re saying. We’re all starting to speak a common language and that’s pretty cool.”

It has already been revealed that K-State players will run from the Cayman Islands to Miami for Tango.

“I don’t feel like there’s a ceiling on our team. says Nowell. “There are so many new levels we can reach. And we will. If we continue to do the next right thing, we will continue to improve.”

Kansas State Menâ??s Basketball vs.  LSU, Nov. 23, 2022. Final score: Kansas State 61, LSU 59. (Photo by Lathe Cobb/K-State Sports)

But back to the trophy. The trophy will be located in the Ice Family Practice Center. It will serve as a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Wildcats and their ability to face adversity and shine on the other side.

It will serve as a tangible start to what looks to be a very promising era for K-State hoops.

“It’s really great for our players to see their hard work pay off,” says Tang. “It’s great for our fans. This is a group of guys that you can really rally behind and cheer for because they’re fighting so hard to get a name up front. I’m really very, very grateful that God gave me this opportunity to be a part of such an amazing university and program and love them.”

Wildcats are heading home. They have big plans for Saturday.

“We’re on our way home for the Sunflower Showdown,” Tang says. “We’re gonna be rowdy at The Bill. Let’s go get this W.”

Tang always likes to say, “It’s a great day to be a wildcat!”

Indeed, it is.

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