NEW YORK — The last time an East Regional was held in Madison Square Garden, diminutive UConn point guard, Shabazz Napier led the Huskies to an unexpected Final Four and a national title. Flash forward nine years and Kansas State’s 5-foot-8 floor general, Markquis Nowell, staked his claim as New York City’s premier point guard by setting “The Mecca of Basketball” ablaze in Kansas State’s 98-93 Sweet 16 vanquishing of Tom Izzo’s Spartans of Michigan State.
Nowell tallying 20 points and distributing an NCAA Tournament record 19 helpers to just two turnovers on his home soil made it even sweeter. In the NCAA Tournament point guard play is essential, height be damned. “Heart over height. That’s the slogan I live by,” is what Nowell told Andy Katz prior to tip-off.
From Kemba Walker to Napier to Jameer Nelson, Napoleonesque point guards have been conquerors before, but this one was extra special because of the confluence of events. Excuse the recency bias, but a New York City point guard serving up lobster-grade in the Tourney at MSG where they’ve gotten used to tuna fish over the years was something else. Last summer, Showtime dropped an entire documentary illuminating New York City’s history of churning out exalted point guards. You can add Nowell to that history after the Harlem Renaissance he authored on the floor of basketball’s Apollo Theater.
Nowell, needled no-look passes through an unsuspecting Spartan defense all night, but with the score tied at 92, K-State’s maestro had the presence of mind in those tense moments to keep forward Keyontae Johnson on his sonar radar while engaging in a back-and-forth with his head coach near the logo, then improvised by lasering a pass near the rim where only Johnson could snag it and hammer it home. The flush gave Kansas State a lead they’d never surrender and Nowell his record-tying 18th assist.
Nowell explained to SI after the game that it wasn’t a trick play or diversion, Nowell was legitimately arguing Jerome Tang’s play call when his spidey senses kicked in.
The highly touted battle between New York City natives Nowell and Michigan State’s Tyson Walker had a clear winner. It was a KO by Nowell. It took three paragraphs to even mention Walker, who had a great game, but one that was obscured by his opponent’s prowess. Nowell’s scoring was the engine behind Kansas State’s first two tournament wins. Still, the point guard who finished the season second nationally in assists, emphasized getting his teammates involved at a prolific rate on Thursday night.
In addition to eclipsing Mark Wade’s NCAA Tournament record for assists, Nowell scored or assisted on 69 of 98 scores according to Synergy Basketball. The night Wade collected his record 18 assists, UNLV lost in the second round to the Hoosiers, in part because Wade only scored 1-of-6 shooting exclusively off of 3-pointers. Nowell constructed his own meals, cooked the Spartan meat, and served the tables.
Whether he was reading pick-and-rolls or anticipating open teammates, Nowell dissected Michigan State with surgical precision. When you show out at The Garden, the nation notices. Nowell’s tutorial finally caught everyone caught up with the burgeoning legend of the Little Apple’s big star. Kevin Durant, who produced the aforementioned “NYC Point Gods” doc, noticed from home as did fellow pint-sized point guard Isaiah Thomas. But more on the latter after the main course.
Michigan State was so mesmerized by Nowell pounding the rock and probing the paint, they missed him throwing teammates open on cuts to the rim. Nowell took advantage of Michigan State’s ball-watching and formed a psychic connection with teammates with a multitude of awe-inspiring passes thrown before they’d even reached their spots.
Nowell briefly deprived a March Madness audience of its marquee talent when he hobbled off in the second half clutching his ankle and appeared to be done for the night. In his absence, Michigan State commenced a 7-2 run. However, in the shadow of the Knicks’ recently departed No. 19 hanging from the rafters, Nowell pulled a Willis Reed.
After re-entering, the lifeless K-State offense was reanimated. Nowell immediately brought The Garden back to life by losing control of the ball on a tipped pass, recycled possession of it on the perimeter, then turned to bank a wild, one-legged three, followed by another signature strip on the other end. He did all this while galloping with a limp.
Even when Nowell got too risky with the biscuit, the bounces went in his favor. On one late possession, Nowell penetrated the lane and flipped an ill-advised and nonchalant alley-oop pass that was barely deflected into the air and careened into Cam Carter’s possession under the basket for an easy two points.
With 1:03 remaining, Nowell got Jaden Akins off-balance with a slick stutter-step, stepback mid-range two to extend the lead to four. But it was Walker who weaved through the defense at the end of regulation, knotted the game up on an acrobatic lay-in at the rim to send the game into overtime and nearly spoiled Nowell’s virtuoso performance.
In overtime, Nowell delivered arguably the greatest intentional alley-oop in NCAA Tournament history (sorry Lorenzo Charles, that was a putback). Before the alley-oop he whipped to Johnson, Nowell was overheard yelling “watch this” toward Isaiah Thomas.
“I was talking to Isaiah Thomas because I think he had a friend over there, and he was rooting for them. And I’m like, y’all not going to win today. Nowell explained in his postgame presser. “And I just kept looking at him for some added motivation.”
By the end, Thomas was extolling the virtues of Nowell, proclaiming himself a fan of the aptly named @MrNewYorkCityy. Even Nowell’s 19th and final assist was a bounce pass along the baseline that had to be placed with pinpoint accuracy to reach Ismael Massoud’s hands. If his pass is placed an inch or two in the wrong direction, it’s a turnover, Michigan State ball, down one.
If that wasn’t enough, Nowell capped off the Wildcats’ win with a dazzling pickpocket of Walker, then coasted for an easy lay-in as time expired. Michigan State shouldn’t feel bad. He did the same thing in a tie game against Kansas in mid-January as well.
Nowell risked giving Walker three shots or a potential four-point play on the reach-in, but on a night when he was downright supernatural, he could do no wrong. Michigan State has made it this far by limiting turnovers. Nowell’s game-ending strip was Michigan State’s 13th of the game. Nowell plucked five of them. In one night, he channeled Kemba, Willis Reed, and Shabazz. Not bad for what could have been the finest college basketball performance ever seen in Madison Square Garden. High-volume handlers with slick handles are the city’s chief export and Nowell has some tough acts to follow, but this was a legacy-amplifying act.
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