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Fight for the name at the front

By: D. Scott Fritchen

The trophy is approximately 36 inches high and 18 inches wide and has a light blue stem as if representing clear water. Three purple palm trees emerge from a centerpiece that reads “CAYMAN ISLANDS CLASSIC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT.” The base is black and emblazoned in bold gold letters: “CHAMPIONS”. The trophy rests snugly on the left side of the Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang, holding it in his left hand. Tang smiles and forms a Wildcats symbol with his right hand. He wears a black polo shirt with “Wildcats” written in purple script stitching. It’s just after 10pm on a Wednesday at John Gray High School in Grand Cayman. “Sandstorm” fills the air and a few hundred fans across the state of Kansas chant “KSU! KSU! KSU!” To the beat.


This is K-State Men’s Basketball 2022-23 and he’s tough to beat. Looking is hard to beat Keyontae Johnson Swipe out of the corner with a 3-pointer or drift into the paint. It’s hard to beat Markquis Nowell Zip passes at breakneck speed or launch a long 3-pointer. Looking is hard to beat desi sills penetrate the roadway. Looking is hard to beat Nae’Qwan Tomlin sweep the court for a monster dunk. These are just some examples. We are less than a month into this season and we don’t want this to ever end.

 

Kansas State Men'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 top Tang’s smile, Nowell’s chest bumps and David N’Guessan and Sills, and Johnson performing in a slow undulating dance with his hands running over his knees. It’s hard to beat the players gathering in a circle shouting “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” as a true novice Dorian Finister twists in the middle and waves his arms to the ground. It’s hard to beat the odds — so often the best-planned missions just don’t materialize — but this is where K-State basketball, which some fans call the “Tang Gang,” is 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. They were it. It was these guys. And they fought for the name on the front. And our ceiling is so high. That’s the exciting part.”

Kansas State Men'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 beat LSU 61-59 and secure their third-ever vacation tournament title — the Wildcats also won the 2018 Paradise Jam and the 2011 Diamond Head Classic. It It’s been a while since K-State touched a trophy of any kind. However, it doesn’t seem all that long since Tang, as Scott Drew’s top assistant at Baylor, held the 2021 NCAA Division I National Championship Trophy on a confetti-covered basketball court. And here we are. And K-State is 6-0. And it’s the perfect marriage. And on the eve of the turkey dinner, Tang says thank you.

“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 leads K-State with 18 points, and Johnson and Sills each have 16 points. They combined for 22 of the Wildcats’ 28 points in the second half, which saw the team come back from an 11-point deficit with 17 minutes and 27 seconds into play. The Wildcats allow LSU to score just 18 points in the last 20 minutes.

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

Johnson hits the game-winning shot by 4.7 seconds. LSU is falling back with what appears to be a final layup. The problem is that the game clock didn’t start on time. The officials waive the basket. K State wins.

“Big players make big games,” says Sills.

There is also an image that, along with the tournament trophy, will accompany the Wildcats back to Manhattan and possibly beyond. Tang stands in a room on Wednesday night after the big win and talks to his team. On a dry-erase board, someone has sketched a basketball in black ink, as if waiting for a painter’s brush to dance across a canvas. And what might that canvas look like, say in March, when the painter has had time to digest this K-State basketball team in its entirety, and what might the shots look like on the basketball sketched, and what might the basketball look like? any collector?

That perspective will come with time.

Right now, perhaps it’s best to focus on the now, and so we see the head coach speaking to his team about strength and courage and love and unity – “When things didn’t go right, you guys stuck together, man.” he says – and he continues – “And you showed how much you loved and cared for each other and your resilience; hard people do what? The next right thing. We kept grinding and grinding.”

Tang stands in the room in front of his team, pointing over his head at nowhere.

“Our season isn’t about winning that, is it? That’s just one of the steps. So guess what we have to do when we come back? We have to get one percent better every day.

“I’m just telling you, the confetti was nice, but we’ve got more confetti.”

Tang spoke about improving the basketball program when he took the stage at his inaugural press conference on March 24. Nowell and Junior Forward Ishmael Massoud sat with their teammates in the front of the room. Over the next month, the teammates disappeared one by one to various destinations until there was only Nowell and Massoud, two New York natives who were determined to help Tang at the Little Apple.

Kansas State Men'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 compiling the two best performances of his college basketball career. A night after notching 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, becoming only the second player in K-state history -State who has reached 25 points has 10 assists in a game. Against LSU, he has a game-high 18 points, four rebounds and four assists. Nowell calls the tournament “just superb and amazing” and thanks his coaches and teammates.

“I was happy, but I was happier that we held up the trophy together with Coach Tang,” he says. “It was a total team effort. Not one person won this thing for us. There was everyone on the coaching staff for every player on the pitch.”

It seems like yesterday that Nowell along with Johnson and Nae’Qwan Tomlin represented K-State at the Big 12 Media Days and answered all sorts of questions about Tang and K-State’s basketball program. K-State was chosen to finish 10th in the big 12

Today K-State is undefeated.

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

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

One of the other Cayman Islands Classic heroes who was part of the 2020-21 Arkansas Elite Eight team, Sills has big plans for that roster.

“Personally, the sky’s the limit,” he says. “I feel like we have what it takes to be one of the top 25 teams in the country. That’s just the beginning. We still have a long way to go. We’ll push that aside, but we’ll celebrate and then try to move on to the next step starting next week.

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

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

“There’s a toughness and resilience to us,” says Tang. “We have spurt ability, and we can turn things around very quickly, and that they really love each other and really appreciate our people. I hear them say things we say We’re all starting to speak a common language, and that’s pretty cool.”

It was already becoming apparent that K-State players would be running from the Cayman Islands to Miami for Tang.

“I don’t feel like there’s a cap on our team,” says Nowell. “We have so many new levels to reach. And we will. If we keep doing the next right thing, we will keep getting better.”

Kansas State Men'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 is kept at 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 appears to be a very promising era in K-State tires.

“It’s really cool for our players to see their hard work pay off,” says Tang. “It’s cool for our fans. This is a group of guys you can really rally behind and cheer for because they fight so hard for the name at the top. I’m just really, really grateful that God gave me this opportunity to be a part of and to love such a wonderful university and program.”

The Wildcats are on their way home. They have big plans for Saturday.

“We’re headed home for the Sunflower Showdown,” says Tang. “We’re going to be rowdy in The Bill. Let’s get that W.”

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

It really is.

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