Kansas State star played a season of high school hoops in the Eastern Ky. mountains

Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports

The Twitter handle of Kansas State star point guard Markquis Nowell is @MrNewYorkCityy.

So the seventh-grade year that Nowell, a product of Harlem, spent playing high school hoops in Kentucky for Cordia in rural Knott County must have been the ultimate fish-out-of-water experience.

“It was different at first,” Nowell acknowledged Saturday at an NCAA Tournament media availability inside the Greensboro Coliseum. “But we stayed in the gym, every day, seven days a week. Just stayed, getting better. That’s what we did.”

On Sunday, a player who played a season of 14th Region basketball in the Eastern Kentucky mountains in 2012-13, is one of the primary obstacles between the Kentucky Wildcats and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 since 2019.

The diminutive Nowell — listed at 5-foot-8, 160 pounds by Kansas State — had such a stellar 2022-23 season he was voted a third-team AP All-America selection.

A transfer from Little Rock, Nowell will enter Sunday’s NCAA tourney East Region round-of-32 matchup with UK averaging 16.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.4 steals a game. He is shooting 38.3% on field-goal tries, 35% on three-point attempts and 88.5% on foul shots.

Nowell may be a small player, but guarding him, “it’s a big challenge,” Kentucky freshman point guard Cason Wallace said. “(I know) that he has deep (shooting) range, is quick and can get downhill. He’s a good passer, too. So, I’ve got my hands full.”

Along with his older brother Marcus, Markquis Nowell passed through Cordia during the time when former Kentucky Wildcats forward Rodrick Rhodes was trying to turn the tiny public school in the Eastern Kentucky mountains into a national-level high school hoops power by attracting transfer students from around the country.

That effort eventually became controversial and ran afoul of Kentucky High School Athletics Association regulations.

But Nowell said his time at Cordia and the impact Rhodes made on his life were only positive.

Asked how a New York City kid wound up in rural Eastern Kentucky, Nowell said, “It was just connections. Coach Rodrick Rhodes, played for Kentucky. He was from (Jersey City) New Jersey. He was the head coach there.”

Playing against varsity players as a seventh grader, Nowell averaged 5.5 points and hit 40.9 percent of his field-goal tries and 33.3 percent of his three-point attempts to help Cordia go 19-10 and reach the semifinals of the 14th Region Tournament.

Nowell said that Rhodes saw the potential in him, as a smallish guard, long before most others did.

“He was one of the first people to believe in me,” Nowell said of Rhodes. “He (saw) the vision from back then that I could be a good basketball player. He told me, ‘You are going to make it to the NBA one day.’ I always believed him.”

Rhodes is not the only former Kentucky Wildcats player who has played a role in Nowell’s development. Being small in stature, Nowell was captivated by the success at Kentucky of Tyler Ulis — the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in 2015-16 at (a listed) 5-foot-9.

So Nowell reached out to Ulis via Instagram to ask for advice on how to thrive as a small guard.

Ulis, Nowell said, told him that to reach the NBA as a vertically challenged guard one must become an all-out defensive pest, have “a great assist-to-turnover ratio” and just be “a dog.”

Though listed at 5-8, Nowell acknowledges that he is “5-7 on a good day.” At Saturday’s NCAA Tournament media availability, Nowell deployed a winning array of self-deprecating one-liners about his height.

Asked by a reporter what one of the advantages was of being a smaller guard, Nowell said, “When I fall, I am closer to the floor.”

However, as was the case with Ulis — who, as a UK student assistant coach, will be on the bench opposite Nowell’s on Sunday — the Kansas State star motivates off the idea that people doubt him because he is small.

“I want people to see me for my game, not for my size,” Nowell said.

As for his time in Kentucky, Nowell said he still stays in touch with Rhodes “here and there.”

Whatever happens in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament battle of Wildcats, Eastern Kentucky is a small part in the success story that Markquis Nowell has become.

“It was fun there,” Nowell said of his time at Cordia, “and I got better there.”

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