Kentucky basketball: Five things to know about the Kansas State Wildcats

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Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s Sunday opponent in the second round of the NCAA Tournament: The Kansas State Wildcats.

1. Kansas State Coach Jerome Tang waited to get his chance

They say patience is a virtue. Kansas State Coach Jerome Tang. The 56-year-old native of San Fernando of Trinidad and Tobago was an assistant coach at Baylor from 2003 through 2022 before getting his chance to be a head coach. He had served five years as Scott Drew’s assistant head coach before Kansas State hired Tang to replace the fired Bruce Weber.

Tang has made the most of his opportunity. The first-year head coach has guided the Wildcats to a 24-9 record, including an 11-7 mark in the Big 12 and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region. Kansas State opened NCAA play with a 77-65 victory over Montana State on Friday night at Greensboro Coliseum.

Tang has an interesting background. He lived in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands until age 10 when his family moved to Texas. He attended North Central Bible College in Minneapolis and earned a bachelor’s degree from Charter Oak State College. He was head coach at Heritage Christian Academy in Cleveland, Texas, for 10 seasons before being hired by Drew at Baylor.

“I know my profession is coaching,” Tang said after K-State’s win on Friday night, “but my calling and passion is ministry.”

2. Keyontae Johnson is a terrific comeback story

Kentucky fans will remember Keyontae Johnson, the former Florida Gator who collapsed on the court four games into the COVID-19 season of 2020-21. Johnson played just one more game for the Gators. That was in 2021-22 when he appeared as a ceremonial starter in Florida’s Senior Night. The 6-foot-6 Norfolk, Virginia, native was never medically cleared to play for the Gators.

Johnson was cleared after he transferred to Kansas State. He obviously retained his skills. Johnson averaged 8.1 points and 6.4 rebounds as a freshman in Gainesville, then 14.0 points and 7.1 rebounds as a sophomore. After basically missing two seasons, Johnson is averaging 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Wildcats.

He has undoubtedly benefited from the fact that Tang dealt with a similar situation with player Jared Butler when he was at Baylor.

“(Johnson’s family’s) questions were different than everybody else’s questions on a recruiting trip,” Tang told Yahoo Sports. “Mom wanted to make sure we had a system in place with doctors and hospitals and checkups and all those things. Going through a similar situation with (Butler) and already being familiar with their doctors helped put the family at ease.”

Johnson scored 18 points with eight rebounds and three assists in K-State’s victory over Montana State. The comeback continues.

Kansas State forward Keyontae Johnson (11) shoots against Montana State forward Jubrile Belo (13) in the second half at Greensboro Coliseum on Friday.
Kansas State forward Keyontae Johnson (11) shoots against Montana State forward Jubrile Belo (13) in the second half at Greensboro Coliseum on Friday.

3. Don’t go into overtime with Kansas State

Here’s one thing to highlight in K-State’s résumé: The Wildcats are 4-0 in overtime games. The Wildcats beat Nevada 96-87 in OT on Nov. 22 on a neutral floor; beat West Virginia 82-76 in OT on Dec. 31, 2022, in Manhattan; beat Baylor 97-95 in OT on Jan. 7 in Waco; and beat Kansas 83-82 on Jan. 17 in Manhattan.

The Wildcats are 4-2 this season against Kansas, Texas and Baylor. They were No. 15 in the NCAA NET rankings heading into the tournament. After Friday’s play, they were 23rd in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, including 49th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 20th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They are 15th nationally in three-point defense. Opponents are shooting just 30 percent from behind the arc.

Kansas State is not a strong rebounding team. It ranks 219th nationally in rebound percentage at 29.2 percent. It did win the glass against Montana State 29-27. On the season, it is outrebounding foes by a margin of 2.2 per game. Johnson is the team’s leading rebounder. Nae’Qwan Tomlin, a 6-10 junior from Harlem, New York, is second at 5.8 per game.

4. Markquis Nowell is a player to watch

Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell is listed at 5-8 and 160 pounds. His impact is much, much bigger, however.

Another Harlem native on the K-State roster, Nowell dished 14 assists to go with his 17 points in the win over Montana State. He entered the NCAA Tournament third nationally in assists at 7.8 per game. He has produced nine games this season of double-digit assists. Kansas State was credited with 21 assists on 32 made field goals.

Nowell transferred to Kansas State from Little Rock, where he played from 2018-21. Tang has done well in the portal. Johnson arrived from Florida. Tomlin came to Manhattan from Chipola College in Marianna, Florida. Before that, he played one season at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.

Kellis Robinette of the Wichita Eagle wrote this of Nowell:

“Before he played his first game for Jerome Tang this year, Nowell helped the Wildcats away from the court as an extension of the coaching staff. Nowell put in so much work building this team’s roster from the ground up that no one would object if Nowell claimed to be K-State’s recruiting coordinator.

“When people say this is his team, they mean it literally.”

5. Kentucky and Kansas State have an NCAA Tournament history

The Wildcats of Lexington and Wildcats of Manhattan have played each other 10 times on a basketball court. Kentucky has won nine of those meetings. Kansas State has won one. It was a big one, however.

Bruce Weber’s Wildcats defeated Kentucky 61-58 in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional on March 22, 2018. It was a region in which UK was the highest seed in Atlanta at No. 5. Kansas State was the No. 9 seed. K-State went on to lose to No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean in the Elite Eight.

The two teams also met in the 2014 NCAA Tournament in St. Louis. Kentucky was the No. 8 seed. Kansas State was No. 9. UK pulled out a 56-49 victory. It was the start of a unlikely run. Two days later, Kentucky knocked off No. 1 seed and undefeated Wichita State. Three victories later, John Calipari’s club was in the national title game, where it lost to Kevin Ollie and Connecticut.

Judging by Friday night, Kentucky will have larger fan base in attendance on Sunday. Tang said that doesn’t bother him. He pointed out Friday that he was an assistant at Baylor when the Bears snapped UK’s 55-game home-court win streak with a 64-55 triumph at Rupp on Dec. 1, 2012.

“I understand how the Cats travel,” he said Friday, “but our Cats travel, too.”

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