The NCAA Tournament continues tonight at Madison Square Garden where No. 3 seed Kansas State takes on No. 7 seed Michigan State for a spot in the Elite Eight. First year head coach Jerome Tang's Wildcats have exceeded expectations all season, and will look to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018. For Michigan State's Tom Izzo, this is familiar territory; it's the legendary head coach's 15th appearance in the Sweet 16. Even though the Spartans were not projected to be a major contender this season, Izzo's team is clicking at the right time.
But what makes this matchup in the world's most famous arena so special is the homecoming event for each team's starting point guard. Markquis Nowell of Kansas State and Tyson Walker of Michigan State are both New York natives. Neither was heavily recruited coming out of high school. Each started their college careers at small mid-major schools, far away from the bright lights of primetime, nationally televised college basketball.
And now they've both led their teams on a collision course to the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden.
It's the type of drama New York hoops fans and players salivate over. Two native sons getting the chance to showcase their games under the nation's brightest lights on the most famous basketball stage in the world. And for Nowell and Walker, it's the culmination of a long, winding journey through the hinterlands of college basketball all the way to the sport's marquee event.
Markquis Nowell - Mr. New York City(y)
Nowell grew up in Harlem and plays like the archetype of a New York City point guard: incredible ball-handling, slick passing, a chip on his shoulder, and a flair for the dramatic. If his game doesn't make it clear enough, his twitter handle should help clear it up: @MrNewYorkCityy.
But his path from Manhattan, New York to Manhattan, Kansas was not a direct one. Playing at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn and St. Patrick School in New Jersey, the 5-foot-8 (but probably closer to 5-foot-6, to be honest) point guard did not attract any major conference attention on the recruiting trail. Didn't matter that he helped his teams win and produced on the court. Too short.
And so he started his college career at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a small program that played in the Sun Belt Conference. Nowell excelled in Little Rock, averaging over 17 points per game while earning Lou Henson All-American honors as one of the best mid-major players in the country in his sophomore season.
Through some Harlem connections, Nowell ended up in Kansas State for the 2021-2022 season. The Wildcats struggled, going just 14-17, but Nowell proved he could compete at the highest level of college basketball, averaging 12.4 points and 5 assists per game.
This season, with Tang at the helm and star forward Keyontae Johnson as his running mate, Nowell and the Wildcats have excelled. Nowell averaged over 17 points and almost 8 assists per game and earned first team All-Big 12 honors. An impressive rise for the little guy.
But his real national coming out party occurred on Sunday against Kentucky. He slashed and diced the other Wildcats all afternoon, dazzling with behind-the-back passes, crafty finishes, and long range threes. All the bravado of a New York City point guard was on display, and Nowell finished with 27 points and 9 assists. And the undersized floor general played every minute of the game.
Tyson Walker - From Queens, To Boston, To East Lansing
Suiting up opposite Nowell is Michigan State point guard Tyson Walker. Walker's journey to Michigan State mirrors Nowell's to K-State in a lot of ways. Coming out of Christ The King in Queens, the Westbury, Long Island native did not receive much attention from the biggest basketball programs in the country. He ended up at Northeastern University in Boston, where he excelled in the Colonial Athletic Association. As a sophomore, Walker averaged 18.8 points, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game on the way to earning defensive player of the year and first-team all-conference honors.
Following his success at Northeastern, Walker entered the transfer portal in 2021 and ended up joining Izzo's team at Michigan State. While he had an uneven first season in East Lansing, he's really found his footing this season, emerging as a key piece for the Spartans. Walker's 14.8 points per game are tops on the team, and his steady defense helped earn him All-Big Ten team honors.
Lately, Walker's kicked his scoring up to another level. The 6-foot-1 guard uses his quickness and shiftiness to create space and then launches into his smooth shooting stroke. He can finish at the rim with either hand, and, most importantly for Michigan State's tournament hopes, has shown a knack for hitting big shots late in the game.
Some guys are just wired to make tough ass shots. Tyson Walker is one of them. The left handed hang finish to create space on the big to push it back to three late ? blooded. pic.twitter.com/U58CS84lgf
— DK (@SpartanHoops_DK) March 21, 2023
Against second-seeded Marquette in the second round, his entire repertoire was on display. Walker poured in 23 points in 36 minutes, including three tough baskets late to seal the upset win for the Spartans. He even capped the game off with the first in-game dunk of his career.
The Stage Is Set
For Walker, Thursday night's game is a return trip to Madison Square Garden with hopes for a very different outcome. Walker's first game with the Spartans was actually at MSG when Michigan State faced off against Kansas in November of 2021. The Spartans lost by 13, and Walker had an inauspicious debut, scoring just 2 points while amassing 4 fouls in just 20 minutes.
Special delivery ??? pic.twitter.com/C0ql8TebZi
— Michigan State Men's Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) March 22, 2023
This time around, Michigan State will need Walker to continue his recent scoring streak if they hope to advance to the Elite Eight. For Walker's part, aside from a brief pizza delivery to Coach Izzo, he does not seem interested in discussing the New York City connection. He's been pretty reserved in press conferences this week, only admitting he hoped to see his dog while he was on the east coast.
A sampling. Tyson Walker came here to play basketball, not to talk. pic.twitter.com/veixZ6NlpJ
— Kyle Austin (@kylebaustin) March 22, 2023
For Nowell, Thursday night marks his Madison Square Garden debut. It's a moment all New York basketball players dream of, and Nowell is no different.
?Heart over height, that?s the slogan I live by.? ??
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 22, 2023
Just getting to this stage has to be considered an achievement for both Nowell and Walker. To go from the tiny gyms of Arkansas Little Rock and Northeastern to a nationally televised game at MSG is truly the stuff of myth.
But you know each one wants the chance to play at least one more game at MSG, in the Elite Eight on Saturday. Both will get the opportunity to extend their legend a bit further tonight.
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