We have a front-runner for feel-good story of the year in college basketball. Matter of fact, the Kansas State Wildcats might be getting hard to catch.
After another dose of magic — this one 83-82 in overtime over No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 17 — the Kansas State fairy tale season is getting impossible to miss, and easy to applaud. Here are seven reasons why:
1. They were supposed to finish last in the Big 12. That’s where they were in the preseason poll, anyway. Now they’re 16-2 overall and tied for the conference lead with a 5-1 league record and ranked No. 13 in the latest AP poll. This while Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State and Indiana are nowhere to be found in the top 25. Kansas State hasn't been 5-1 in the Big 12 in 15 years. One year ago, the Wildcats were on the way to a 14-17 finish and ninth place in the conference.
2. They know drama. They have played four overtime games this season, including three of their first six Big 12 contests. They have won them all. They also beat LSU 61-59 in the last five seconds of regulation.
3. Big fish don’t faze them. They have defeated four ranked opponents, including three in a row for the first time in school history. That included not blinking when they fell behind then-No. 24 West Virginia 17-3, and outrunning then-No. 6 Texas 116-103.
4. The Kansas win was a Sunflower State epic in nearly every way. Both teams had the exact same number of rebounds, turnovers, shots and points in the paint. They were separated by one in field goals and fouls and two in free throws. Four of the 10 starters fouled out, including three for Kansas. After all that, Kansas State won on a lob dunk and then a desperate defensive stand. Any blow against the Jayhawks is deeply felt. They have met 298 times and Kansas has won 203 of them. While the Jayhawks have their four national championship trophies, Kansas State hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1964.
5. When the Wildcats defeated then-No. 19 Baylor in overtime, their record was 14-1. That was their best start to a season in 64 years.
6. About the new coach’s remarkable journey to this spot:
Jerome Tang was born in Trinidad and Tobago, moved with his family as a young child to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and later to Texas. He became a coach and athletic director at a small private high school in Texas, building a powerhouse at Heritage Christian Academy and making $16,000 a year, driving an old Honda with the bumper held on by wire and no radio. When Baylor’s Scott Drew needed an assistant in 2003 and heard about this earnest coach in Cleveland, Texas, he came to dinner to get acquainted. Tang spent most of the last $10.81 he and his wife had saved to buy food for the meal.
Drew hired him and Tang stayed at Baylor for two decades. Along the way, he earned his own college degree online. Kansas State gave him his shot this season and there was one thing he promised about reviving the Wildcats at his introduction: “It’s not going to take long. I didn’t come to rebuild. I came to elevate.”
Now he’s 16-2, only the second Wildcat coach in history to beat Kansas on his first try, a genuine national coach of the year candidate and a long, long way from having to scrape up 10 bucks to get ribs and potato salad for Scott Drew’s dinner. That was him standing on the scorer’s table the other night, chanting with the Kansas State fans after the win over the Jayhawks.
“I’ve been blessed by God to have this opportunity,” he said recently. “And so I always want to make sure and thank Him for that.”
Those around him are dazzled, friend and foe alike.
Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell: “There’s so much knowledge that he’s passed down outside of basketball. He’s a really good man, teaches you about God and life. It's not just the little things like these wins, it’s the bigger picture and knowing that we’re supposed to have success. He emphasizes that we’re supposed to win these types of games, we’re supposed to win national championships.”
Kansas coach Bill Self: “I think he’s represented our league and obviously Kansas State as well as you possibly can. Nobody’s done a better job assembling talent in a short amount of time and getting players together that I’ve seen.”
7. About that assembly of talent:
Kansas State returned only two players. One was Nowell, a senior born on Christmas Day, and an all-Big 12 defender last year who this season has put up 36 points against Texas and 32 against Baylor. Tang has restocked the roster with transfers who have enchanted their new home.
There’s leading scorer Keyontae Johnson, who as a Florida Gator collapsed during a game with a heart issue in December 2020, a scene that horrified his teammates and all of college basketball. He didn’t play for two years but now here’s his second chance at life and basketball — and it was his dunk that beat Kansas. He and Nowell contribute 35 points a game between them.
There’s starting guard Cam Carter, in from Mississippi State, the grandson of a minister. And 6-foot-10 Abayomi Iyiola, formerly from Hofstra, who is working on his personal financial planning Master’s and whose first name back in his homeland of Nigeria means, "my enemies tried to mock me and God wouldn’t allow it." And Desi Sills, who started at Arkansas State but hasn’t minded being the main man off the Kansas State bench. Note his 24 points against Kansas. And backup guard Tykei Greene, who graduated with honors from Stony Brook.
There’s Nae’Qwan Tomlin, a junior college transfer who has become a potent third scoring option in the lineup to go with Nowell and Johnson. He grew up in Harlem, across the street from the famed basketball landmark of Rucker Park where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain once worked on their game as youths. He didn’t play high school basketball but grew 10 inches, found his way out of running with the wrong crowd and now is a key producer for one of the surprise packages of the season.
Leading them all: The devout man who finally got the chance to be a college head coach at the age of 55. No wonder the energy of the masses around Manhattan, Kansas is so electrified these days. It certainly was when Kansas visited. Manhappiness, Tang called it.
“I want them to bring that because they love us and not because of the opponent that we’re playing,” Tang said.
All things considered, loving Kansas State must be easy to do this season