As the pass left senior guard
’s right hand, Jerome Tang thought to himself, “Oh crap.” The first-year Kansas State head coach thought his veteran guard’s lob to senior forward Keyontae Johnson would be too high to handle and was sailing out of bounds to give Oklahoma State the ball trailing by 3 in the final minute Tuesday night in Manhattan.
Johnson had other plans, skying for a one-handed alley-oop slam that gave the Wildcats a 62-57 advantage and put the final nail in Oklahoma State’s coffin. The dunk was so surprising that Tang admitted it drew an expletive from the normally church-mouthed man.
“He catches the thing outside the lane it looked like and then hammers it and I said ‘what the?’,” said Tang, implying an expletive uttered in the moment as the 11th-ranked Wildcats improved to 15-1 on the season with a 65-57 victory.
“I did, so I told the guys I did push-ups in the locker room,” Tang said. “But we say it all the time. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time moments and those two dudes connecting on that, there’s no coaching to that. That’s players.”
It’s every bit as surprising that Kansas State has surpassed its season win total from last season before the second week of January as it is that Johnson was able to secure and finish the remarkable alley-oop. As one of only two remaining players from last year’s Kansas State squad that finished with a 14-17 record, Nowell shook his head when the record was mentioned Tuesday evening.
“It’s been a long time coming and we put in a lot of work over the summer,” Nowell said, emphasizing a get-to rather than got-to mentality that the program has embodied.
Tang’s group, led by Nowell, who once again was incredible in another K-State victory, hung on for an eight-point victory Tuesday night in a game in which the Wildcats shot 35.6 percent from the floor.
Over a four-game stretch to begin Big 12 play, Nowell is averaging more than 25 points and 10 assists per game while shooting above 50 percent from the floor and from beyond the 3-point arc. In the last decade, only Ja Morant, Trae Young and Denzel Valentine have achieved those numbers over a four-game span.
What has come to be expected with Nowell is the free-wheeling shot selection and jaw-dropping makes from distance. In the first half it came when the 5-foot-8 guard denied a ball screen from junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin and hit a step-back 3-pointer. In the second half, it came when Nowell pulled up in transition from just inside the Powercat logo and splashed a 3 home.
“We have this agreement that, you know, every day you’re supposed to take your vitamin. He gets one vitamin and I take one vitamin a game,” said Tang of Nowell, who moments after making one from an absurd distance to give the Wildcats a 54-44 advantage hoisted a heat check attempt that clanged off the back iron. “If it goes in it’s not a vitamin. If it’s a bad one, then I’ve had my vitamin for today and we go.”
Bramlage Coliseum was sold out Tuesday night for the first time under Tang and will be again for the next three games, the school has already announced. The Wildcats are ahead of schedule because of the play of Nowell and Johnson and the empowering belief that Tang’s staff has provided the roster with. A present and rowdy Kansas State fanbase is something that Tang said he remembered during his trips to Manhattan as part of the Baylor coaching staff.
When he was hired by Kansas State, Tang said he envisioned crowds like Tuesday night. But he knew that work had to be done to make them happen.
“I’ve been waiting for that,” Tang said. “The fans all around were terrific. When I thought of coming here and having the opportunity to coach here, that’s what I envisioned and I knew we had to do our part to put a product on the floor that would get our fans excited about sacrificing a two-hour drive or whatever they had to do to be here on a weekday.
“I’m thankful that we did that and then they responded.”
A team that defeated consecutive ranked opponents on the road in offensive shootouts came home and won a rock fight against the Big 12’s best defensive field goal percentage team and continued to keep pace with the rest of the league’s top programs. In the second half, Oklahoma State shot 22.9 percent from the floor and made two of its 14 3-point attempts. Cowboy guards
and John-Michael Wright combined to shoot a paltry 3 of 22 from the field.
The variety of winning ways the Wildcats have found vaulted Kansas State into the AP poll this week and should put them center stage for another ranked matchup next week.
And while it won’t be surprising that Bramlage Coliseum will be rocking for another home contest against a top-5 Kansas squad a week from Tuesday night, even Tang said the start to his first year in Manhattan has caught him a bit off guard.
“I think the whole thing is kind of surprising. When we got here we looked at the team and we said ‘how many wins do you think we’ve got with this team?’ and we didn’t see enough wins,” Tang admitted. “Because we wanted enough wins to go to the tournament. So then we started bringing guys in and as we started bringing guys in we started to say, ‘OK, how many wins do you see?”
With 10 non-conference wins as a goal for the team that Big 12 coaches picked to finish in 10th place, the Wildcats built a schedule that made that possible. And while Tang said that Nowell has smashed through supposed ceilings that people put on the diminutive guard, so too has this team.
“Never did we think that we’d be 15-1 right now,” Tang said, “but our approach is not as such to look at the whole season. We’re just on the next thing. We try not to look too far down the road, but looking back the whole thing is surprising. But I think you saw tonight — you saw the last couple of nights — we’ve got some dudes.”