Kansas State took a risk in hiring Jerome Tang. And the coach is delivering the reward

Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

Fourteen major programs — teams in the Power Five and Big East — changed men’s basketball coaches after last season, and three hired first-time head coaches.

One of those, Duke’s Jon Scheyer, knew before Mike Krzyzewski’s final season that he would be the successor. Another, Louisville’s Kenny Payne, struggled leading the school he attended.

No circumstance was quite like that of Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, and no coach has done more with the opportunity.

The Wildcats, picked to finish last in the Big 12, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and will face Kentucky at 1:40 p.m. on Sunday. The winner heads to New York for the East Regional semifinal round.

“This whole year has been a dream come true for me from the moment I got the job,” Tang said. “It’s one we don’t want to see end.”

It’s the dream of a person who, after spending 19 years as a Baylor assistant, believed the stars had aligned to make the move. But the risk was on Kansas State’s side. Athletic director Gene Taylor’s candidate list included Division I head coaches.

But Taylor chose the path less traveled. When assistants get head-coaching jobs, they’re often elevated from within the program or are returning to their alma mater. Or they’ve had previous head-coaching experience.

Tang’s only tie to Kansas State was a long list of Big 12 battles played between Baylor and K-State.

“I hope he’s been able to prove that other top assistants can say, ‘I know what I’m doing’” Taylor said.

Taylor was convinced there was no better candidate no matter the background, but he was prepared to summon the patience often needed in a coaching transition period. Especially when the Wildcats’ roster numbered five players in July.

“I told this to Jerome the other night,” Taylor said. “We were getting to July with five players and I said, ‘Are you getting nervous?’”

Tang told Taylor that players were coming and they were going to be right ones. Desi Sills was one the latecomers, arriving after fall classes had started. Sills said his knowledge of Tang was limited to having played Baylor in the 2021 Elite Eight while competing for Arkansas.

But a couple of conversations and Sills was sold.

“He came from Baylor, a winning program,” Sills said. “He said he wanted to elevate us here, and he’s doing that.”

Clearly, the Wildcats were desperate for a winner after going 34-58 over the previous three seasons under Bruce Weber. And from a duty standpoint, Tang had been everything but a head coach for Scott Drew in Waco, especially in the final few seasons that included the 2021 NCAA title team.

Once the K-State roster was filled out — mostly with transfers — Tang told Taylor cohesion would take time but he saw the Wildcats as a tournament team.

That’s fine, Taylor thought. The NIT could work as an opening bid. After all, Kansas State hadn’t been to the postseason since a first-round bounce-out in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and these Wildcats were picked to finish last in the league.

Instead, K-State was seeded third in the Big 12 tournament and featured two first-team all-conference players in Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell.

“I wanted to see us be competitive,” Taylor said. “I wanted us to be at a point where we got to the end of the year where we weren’t necessarily fighting for a Big 12 championship but we were fighting to play in some sort of postseason.

“I was trying to be realistic and not set too high of standards for him. Just come in and let’s be competitive. Let’s get our fans excited about K-State basketball. He’s done that.”

To a point where a contract extension must be a strong consideration. Taylor said the school will wait until after the season to address any change to the original six-year deal that pays Tang $2.1 annually with bonuses and annual increases.

“I want him to know that we want him,” Taylor said. “His phone may be ringing. It may not be. We want to at least have that conversation. We made him a fair deal for someone who has never been a head coach. But he’s proven that he can be good. We need to make sure he’s comfortable staying at K-State.”