NEW YORK — Five years ago, Kansas State had a run to the Elite Eight and they repeated it in 2023.
This version of KSU’s Elite Eight team looks a little different. Bruce Weber is gone, and K-State was a No. 9 seed in the tournament, while Jerome Tang is in his first year as head coach.
The team is full of transfers, with no veteran players beginning their careers in Manhattan. But they both had the veteran leadership and the camaraderie to make history even without making the Final Four.
This year, Markquis Nowell took the nation by storm with his flashy assists, three-point prowess and athleticism in his 160-pound, 5-foot-8-inch frame. His 19 assists against Michigan State in the Sweet 16 broke the NCAA Tournament single-game record.
In his final game as a Wildcat, he dropped 30 points, 12 assists and five steals in a 79-76 loss to 9-seed Florida Atlantic, who made their first Final Four in school history.
On the final play, Nowell handed the ball to Ish Massoud, but the FAU defense surrounded him and prevented a shot from going up.
The transfer from Arkansas-Little Rock spent two years with Kansas State, but he will be remembered by many as a Wildcat.
“I’m very grateful,” Nowell said after the game. “I had a tremendous year with my teammates and my coaching staff. Had a lot of fun. Looking back at how hard we worked to get to this point, I’m just thankful for the journey.”
“I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The storylines were perfect for K-State’s run: the short point guard who can do it all, the longtime assistant who is thriving in his first shot at head coach, the small forward that played basketball for the first time since he collapsed on the court at his last school (Keyontae Johnson) and four players from New York were playing in their hometown, Madison Square Garden.
Tang also took the world by storm because of the team mantra ‘Crazy Faith’ and because of how outward his faith is in his religion and his players. After the game, he implored players to keep their heads up even in an immense loss and be grateful for the ride to the Elite Eight.
“Probably one of the toughest things that you experience with these guys,” Tang said about the loss.
“If we can’t be grateful in these times, then all the love and joy that we talk about is fraud and we’re not frauds. And so I wanna give FAU and coach (Dusty May) a lot of credit. They did a great job.”
“This hurts right now, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for 10 players, 10 others or 20 others. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. And so, so, so very thankful for the fun and a ride that we’ve had this year.”
Johnson only played 18 minutes in the game due to foul trouble, and he garnered nine points in that time.
The young man that fought through being in a medically induced coma after collapsing while playing at Florida was emotional after the game and gave his thanks to Tang.
“He’s one of the main coaches that showed his care for me, and I mean I trusted him, he trusted me, and he told me that he wasn’t gonna fail me, and he didn’t lie about it. So I just appreciate everything he did.”
The loss hurts for everyone in and around the K-State program, especially with this being the eighth straight Elite Eight loss in program history. The team will also lose several seniors that transferred in.
But if Tang’s first year has shown anything, it’s that believing in others and loving people unconditionally can spawn a collective to do amazing things. And this is only the beginning of his tenure.
“You can sit around and mope and cry about it, but you can really just think about the love and the joy that you’ve had through the season,” Tang said.
“Winners keep their heads up, they don’t drop their heads. And so our guys were not gonna walk off the floor with their heads down. Tough things are gonna happen in our life, and we don’t get to wallow in it, OK? We gotta keep moving forward. And this is more of a lesson for them of becoming men than it is about basketball.”