by Alec Busse • EMAWOnline – Lead Reporter – @Alec_Busse

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Sitting alone, Jerome Tang’s mind drifted away from the Big Ten Tournament Championship game between Purdue and Penn State on his television set. For a moment, Tang’s thoughts drifted towards how special a moment his program was less than an hour away from experiencing.

On Sunday, Kansas State’s heard its name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2019. The Wildcats are a No. 3 seed in the East region and are playing No. 14 seed Montana State in the Round of 64 on Friday night in Greensboro, NC.

“I told our administration, staff, that we can’t ever get tired or take this for granted,” Tang said. “It’s hard to do — really, really hard to do. So it’s a blessing, we’re very thankful to God for this opportunity.”

Few thought Kansas State would be playing in the NCAA Tournament in Tang’s first season leading the Wildcats. On Sunday, players and coaches wore purple shirts with the team’s phrase of ‘Crazy Faith’ printed in grey text across the chest with the numbers one and two followed by about a dozen blank spaces. The shirts represented how Kansas State returned just two players from last season’s team: senior point guard Markquis Nowell and junior forward Ish Massoud.

On Sunday, Tang took a moment to reflect on a summer lunch date with Nowell. The first-year K-State head coach said that he would do “everything” he could to help put a team around the Wildcat point guard who bet on Tang in his final season of college basketball to help get Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.

“He’s got this Kemba Walker thing about him,” Tang said. “That I”m going to take whoever around me and go do this thing. So that’s really gratifying when you recruit guys, you tell them ‘These are some things we want to accomplish and we think we can do this with you.’”

Kansas State entered the season picked to finish in 10th place in the Big 12 by the league’s coaches. Instead, they finished third and had impressive wins at Texas, Baylor vs. Kansas and Baylor again in Manhattan. Keyontae Johnson turned into one of the country’s best transfers, averaging about 17.5 points a game for Kansas State despite not playing basketball for nearly two seasons because of a heart condition.

“It means a lot knowing all the hard work, everything I’ve been through,” Johnson said of what it means to be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in his career after previously playing in the NCAA Tournament in 2018-19 at Florida. … “Knowing our goals and sticking together, figuring it out and getting to the Tournament, and being ranked this high is a blessing. I’m grateful to be here.”

Tang wants his team to be grateful for the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s why he didn’t provide them with a detailed scouting report shortly after the selection show. The player wouldn’t be meeting in the team’s theater for a film session of Montana State on Sunday either.

In the past, Tang said that teams he worked with in his 19 previous seasons at Baylor focused too much on the next step. They didn’t get a moment to celebrate the accomplishment that qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. That’s why Tang strategically avoided that with his players. Tang hosted personnel from his program at his home on Sunday evening for about an hour.

“I want everybody in our program to be thankful for this and celebrate it,” he said. “Then, we’ll get to work. We’re going to take some time to celebrate it.”

Kansas State’s coaching staff, though, was quickly preparing. As Tang met with the press, his coaching staff discussed who would handle the scouting report for the Bobcats, who enter the tournament with a 25-8 record and a Big South Conference Tournament championship on their resume. Tang, admits, that he doesn’t” know much at all about his team’s first opponent, but he “thinks” the watched them play in the Big Sky Tournament.

“No team in this tournament is not a good team,” Tand said. “Everybody has played a tough schedule and had to accomplish a lot of things.”

Tang said that his coaching staff would spend about an hour downloading film to begin scouting the Big South champions. Coaches will watch between 5-7 games to gain knowledge of Montana State, communicate with others in the industry for scouting report tips to help the Wildcats being preparation for Friday night’s game in North Carolina.

“I know that we’re going to have our guys prepared, as they will, Montana State will,” Tang said. “The hardest game to win is the first one. Everybody has multiple days to prepare and all their friends are sending them scouting reports. They know people on other staffs and are trying to find out as much as we are. Then, the whole, how are you going to handle the emotions of it?”

Kansas State’s roster mostly lacks NCAA Tournament experience and Tang has just one member of his coaching staff who has been part of a trip to the second weekend of the event. There’s no replicating the emotions K-State is going to feel this week.

“There’s nothing like it until you can experience it. You go into that first practice where you get to run out on the blue carpet and go out there and the fans are in the stands and do it, you see the logos,” Tang said. … “Nothing quite like that. It’s like that for everybody. Some teams may have more experience than others or it’s not a new thing. You never get tired of it.”