Markquis Nowell and three K-State teammates get dream New York homecoming at Sweet 16

Every basketball player who grows up in New York and learns the game by hooping at one of the city’s iconic outdoor courts is different, but they all have one thing in common.

They dream of one day playing inside Madison Square Garden.

It doesn’t matter which of the five Boroughs they call home, which high school they attend or what college they choose to represent. All roads lead back to the pursuit of that universal goal.

With that in mind, Kansas State’s upcoming trip to New York for a Sweet 16 game against No. 7 seed Michigan State comes with extreme levels of excitement for four Wildcats who grew up in the Big Apple, because it will be played at the world’s most famous arena.

“It’s the mecca of basketball,” Kansas State forward Ismael Massoud said. “It’s the greatest arena in the world. You grew up watching games there, whether it was the NBA or college basketball. You can only dream of moments like this when you’re in the park. To have an opportunity to do it ... I can’t even put it into words.”

Big city, bigger dreams

K-State point guard Markquis Nowell is from Harlem. So is junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin. Senior guard Tykei Greene hails from Queens. Massoud calls East Harlem home.

They all knew of each other when they were younger and their paths crossed at various basketball events across the city. At some point in their lives, they came to be teammates or opponents. Then they went their separate ways to try and prove themselves when they got older. Nowell enrolled at Arkansas-Little Rock, Tomlin went to junior college, Greene stayed in town to play for Manhattan and Massoud left for Wake Forest.

Somehow, they all ended up transferring to K-State and became teammates with a new goal of leading the Wildcats to a national championship. But the dream they grew up sharing came back into focus this season when K-State earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was placed in the East Region.

If they could win games against No. 14 seed Montana State and No. 6 seed Kentucky, their reward was a trip home and at least one game at MSG.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, when Nowell exploded for 17 points and 14 assists against Montana State to go along with 27 points and nine assists against Kentucky. Maybe it shouldn’t have shocked anyone when Massoud drained a game-altering three in the Round of 32 or when Tomlin piled up 25 points in his two tournament games or when Greene provided valuable minutes off the bench.

“We all wanted to go to New York,” Nowell said. “I’m not going to lie. That was a pretty big motivator.”

New York state of mind for Markquis Nowell

That statement was especially true for Nowell. He says he hasn’t visited his hometown in more than three years. He had opportunities to do so last spring and summer, but he chose to remain at K-State during the offseason to help new coach Jerome Tang build a team.

There was much work to be done.

First, Nowell served as the team’s unofficial recruiting coordinator and assisted the coaching staff as it began to reconstruct a roster that was stripped down to all but two players following the departure of former coach Bruce Weber. Next, Nowell worked on his own game and trained with his own teammates in hopes of building quick chemistry. Then he went on the road and promoted the team by attending every stop on the school’s Catbacker tour.

K-State basketball wasn’t nearly as popular a few months ago as it is now. When the 5-foot-8 playmaker shook hands with fans in towns like Salina, Great Bend, Colby and Emporia he was often mistaken for K-State running back Deuce Vaughn, because they are roughly the same height.

Nowell should be much more recognizable in his old stomping grounds this week. After all, he likes to call himself Mr. New York City. He hopes people realize where he’s from based on the way he plays.

“I got my toughness and my grittiness by playing in parks in New York City,” Nowell said. “Coming from where we come from gave us the opportunity to play on this stage in college basketball. I am just embracing it and trying to be an inspiration to kids back home and show them that you can do whatever you want to do if you work hard and trust yourself.”

Big city ballers

Tang didn’t recruit Nowell or Massoud. They decided to transfer to K-State largely because they had a strong relationship with former assistant coach Shane Southwell, who also grew up playing in New York .

But Tang could tell immediately that both of them were from the Big Apple. It showed in the way they played.

He asked both of them to stay with the Wildcats and play for him this season because he liked their New York style on the court.

“When you get a point guard you want to get one from one of the big cities,” Tang said. “They take pride in where they are from and have big city toughness. You want guys from Chicago and New York and New Orleans. When they make a play they yell, ‘You don’t know where I’m from.’ Markquis does that all the time and just yells, ‘I’m from New York.’ You want that toughness and grit.”

Nowell is the alpha dog on this team, but Tomlin has also been a valuable member of the starting lineup.

His journey to Madison Square Garden is different than most, though. Tomlin didn’t start playing organized basketball until after high school when he experienced a growth spurt and friends pleaded with him to try out for a junior-college team once he reached 6-foot-10.

He goofed around playing pickup games at various parks in Harlem, but he has never before played inside a New York gym of any kind. His skills developed so late that his first experience will be at MSG.

“It does kind of blow my mind a little bit that it happened this way,” Tomlin said. “It’s amazing and it’s a dream come true. I have never really played in front of my family or my friends before, but they are all going to be at this game.”

For the contingent of New York players on K-State’s roster, the hardest thing about playing against Michigan State at 5:30 p.m. Central on Thursday might be lining up tickets for all their supporters.

Greene said he will have dozens of friends and family at the game. Massoud said his guest list could reach triple digits.

“It would take me more than an hour to name everyone who’s coming,” Massoud said. “It’s too bad I’ve got limited tickets. I’m going to have to figure that out.”

Hey, it’s a good problem to have.

If you can make it here you can make it anywhere

The Wildcats won’t lack for motivation when they play the Spartans. Much like when Greene, Massoud, Nowell and Tomlin used to go to Rucker Park and play until they lost, the number of games they get inside Madison Square Garden is entirely up to them.

If K-State beats Michigan State it will advance to the regional finals against the winner of Tennessee and Florida Atlantic. Lose, and the Wildcats are going home.

Every game in New York has a tournament feel. That mindset will be nothing new for K-State’s group of New York players, even though it will be played inside a dream venue.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Massoud said. “You’re not getting anything. You have to earn everything you’ve got. It’s the concrete jungle. It’s fast paced. You have got to look out for yourself. It is just playing basketball in the parks. You don’t have to drive everywhere. It’s just a different life style. Only people from New York can truly understand it.”