There are times I wonder: If I hadn’t followed college sports for 55 years, would I be watching now? The NCAA is an unfunny joke. Football is a realm where only the rich get richer. After a decade when no basketball player of note stuck around for a second season, NIL money has led student-athletes to remain student-athletes. But when we were saying, “Pay the players,” were million-dollar NILs what we envisioned?
Sometimes I wish I could wash my hands of the whole mess. Then comes a night like Thursday, when the NCAA tournament, for which there is no professional equivalent, produces a game that, even as it’s unfolding, you know you’ll remember forever.
Kansas State-Michigan State went to overtime. After 44 minutes and 50 seconds, you still didn’t know who’d win – or, in my case, who I wanted to win.
Markquis Nowell of K-State, the 5-foot-8 guard with the Twitter handle of @MrNewYorkCityy, had the game of his life in the arena atop Penn Station. Madison Square Garden has been the site of many historic moments. The Willis Reed Game was there. The first two Ali-Frazier fights were there. The Rangers beat the Devils in Game 7 there – “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!”
On Dec. 30, 1970, St. Bonaventure’s Bob Lanier scored 50 on Purdue in the ECAC Holiday Festival. On Christmas in 1984, the Knicks’ Bernard King scored 60. Shortly after his return from baseball, Michael Jordan, wearing No. 45, scored 55. Trae Young took a bow there in 2021. Now Markquis Nowell, a New Yorker based in a different Manhattan, has placed his mark on MSG.
He played 43 minutes. He had 20 points, 19 assists and five steals. (The middle number is an NCAA tournament record.) Oh, and he turned his ankle in the second half.
On K-State’s first possession after a retaped Nowell re-entered, he ran down a loose ball and, with two seconds left on the shot clock, flipped it off the backboard and through the hoop. Holy moly. He hopped on one foot for the next 20 seconds. You wondered how long he could go. He went five minutes beyond the distance. Two days after Willis Reed died at 80, Nowell had his Willis Reed moment. How could you root against this?
Maybe because this Michigan State might have been Tom Izzo’s 20th-best team. In grand Izzo style, it was the only one of the Big Ten’s eight tournament representatives to play beyond the first weekend.
His team won the 2000 national championship. He has taken Michigan State to eight Final Fours. This was his 15th Sweet 16. The Spartans have reached 25 NCAA tournaments in succession. Know how many of Izzo’s players – he became head coach in March 1995, succeeding mentor Jud Heathcote – have been top 10 NBA draftees? Two.
Markquis Nowell: great player. Tom Izzo: great coach. Their collision stands with any Sweet 16 game ever. One team made 49.2% of its shots, 52% of its 3-pointers and 81.8% of its free throws. That team lost.
In the final minute of overtime, Nowell had two assists – one on an inbounds pass – plus the climactic steal and the layup that made it 98-93 at the buzzer. That’s 98 points against a program built on rebounding and defense. Izzo’s guys couldn’t guard Nowell, who four days earlier had 27 points and nine assists against Kentucky.
After that game, the beaten John Calipari referred to Nowell as “the little kid.” He’s little, but he’s no kid. (He’s 23.) Like nearly every other collegiate athlete, he’s a transfer, having spent three seasons as a Little Rock Trojan. He stayed at K-State after Bruce Weber resigned under duress last spring.
The Wildcats hired Jerome Tang, who designed a lovely offense around his tiny guard and who, in the final moments Thursday, allowed Nowell to shake off the coach’s signals and do as he pleased. What pleased Nowell was a no-look lob that Keyontae Johnson dunked behind his head. The outrageous bucket put K-State ahead to stay.
Nowell conceded afterward that, before the lob, he’d looked to where Isiah Thomas was seated – a former Big Ten player pulling for the Big Ten – and said, “Watch this.” Nowell also told the media: “Dang, I’ve got to watch what I say.”
“This is a bad boy!” Tang told a postgame interviewer while grabbing Nowell’s shoulder. Little kid, bad boy, great player.
Said the losing coach: “It was fun. It must have been a hell of a game for TV, a hell of a game for the fans.”
It was so hellacious as to be heavenly. Why do we keep watching college sports? That game right there – that’s why.
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