Thursday night's Sweet 16 matchup between Kansas State and Michigan State is in contention for the best game of this year's NCAA Tournament. It had everything. A pair of New York City kids making a homecoming at Madison Square Garden. Coaching legend Tom Izzo against Jerome Tang, a first year head coach who's probably going to win national coach of the year honors. Excellent shooting. Top-notch playmaking. Clutch moments galore. But, Kansas State's trick play stole the show.
Kansas State Trick Play Steals the Show
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
With the score tied at 92 and less than a minute remaining in overtime, K State point guard and self proclaimed Mr. New York City Markquis Nowell dribbled just past half court. Nowell had dictated the game's flow all night, and was sitting on 18 points and 17 assists. The Harlem native was fully seizing his first career opportunity to play at the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, and this was a chance to put his final stamp on the game. But he'd also taken a few ill-advised threes from the logo, and sometimes hero ball and the adrenaline that goes with it can go a little too far. So K State fans were wondering just what Nowell would do in this situation. Set up a play? Initiate some pick and roll action? Or go for the kill shot and hoist another impossibly deep triple?
And then in the next instant, Nowell flicks his wrists and sends the ball on a perfect line towards the basket where it meets Keyontae Johnson for a rim-rocking, reverse alley oop to put the Wildcats on top and send MSG and millions of fans at home on their couches into a frenzy.
It all happened so quickly that at first glance it looked like a simple case of the defense falling asleep and two smart players taking advantage with a big play. And if it had been just that, then dayenu; it would have been enough.
But if you look at the replay, particularly the one from the side, you can see an element of deception at work.
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 24, 2023
As Nowell crosses half court, pounding the ball, he and Tang start gesticulating at one another, seemingly locked in a disagreement over what play to run with the game, and the season, on the line. There's Nowell, basically stamping his feet and whining at center court while his coach does a series of hand gestures that look like a play call.
What does the defense do in this situation? Well a number of things. The guy guarding Nowell obviously keeps his eye on him, since the lightning quick guard can get past you in an instant. But, everyone else sort of freezes and tenses up for a minute, watching the ball and trying to anticipate the play call.
Little do they know, they've fallen for the ruse. While they're watching Nowell and Tang do their hand gesture fight thing, Johnson sneaks to the rim. Once he gets a step on the defender, the play is over. Because Nowell is one of those New York City point guards with eyes behind his head, who's probably been throwing lobs since he was 10 years old, all it takes is a split second of a window to deliver the ball for Johnson right where it needed to be.
It was the perfect bit of misdirection. Just long enough to cause the defender to fall asleep for a half second, but so quick that it was over before anyone noticed it happened.
Trickery at Its Finest
I feel like you see this in football on occasion. Pre-snap, the quarterback will push his hands to his helmet like he can't hear the play call, or walk towards the sideline like they're about to call a timeout, and boom - direct snap to the running back for a quick gain.
There's a really great fake timeout from Andre Miller where he lulls the D into thinking he's heading towards the sideline to call a timeout, but then sneaks past the defender and accelerates to the hole for an uncontested layup.
And of course in baseball there's a whole encyclopedia of hidden ball tricks. My favorite, from my glory days of high school baseball, was called "Rocco," because I grew up in a very Italian-American town and it was not inconceivable that we had a kid named Rocco on our team. When our coach yelled out, "Come on Rocco!", the pitcher would whirl around to try to pick off a runner on second base. The shortstop and second basemen would simultaneously dive as if the ball had gone past both of them, the outfielders would all run towards the gap as if the ball had somehow magically gone over the fence, and everyone on defense would collectively scream and cuss as loud as possible. The runner on second, thinking he had a free pass to third, would tentatively inch over. As soon as he took a few steps, the pitcher would run toward him, ball in hand, and tag him out or catch him in a run down. Wonderful, absolutely bush league stuff.
But Nowell's play Thursday night was much slicker than anything my high school baseball team cooked up. He and Tang hammed things up in just believably enough. Coaches and point guards disagree all the time! Credit to Johnson for breaking at exactly the right moment, and of course, the dime from Nowell was exactly on target.
For Kansas State's part, they played it coy in the postgame. When asked about the season-defining play at the post game press conference, Nowell said, "I mean, it was just a basketball play between me and Keyontae...Michigan State plays high up, and Keyontae...we got eye contact and he was like 'lob, lob.' And I just threw it up."
Neither Nowell nor Tang nor any Wildcat would admit that the fake argument to distract the defense was staged. But this is 100% the type of thing a team practices, particularly when you have a passer like Nowell who can throw a no-look lob on a dime. Having the confidence to break it out at the biggest moment in the game, tied in overtime with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line? That's incredibly gutsy stuff.
Nowell was the star of the show in the Sweet 16. He finished the night with 20 points, an NCAA Tournament record 19 assists, and 5 steals. The smallest guy on the court, the guy who lives by the slogan "Heart Over Height," delivered just that on the world's biggest stage.
He treated hoops fans everywhere to a memorable night, and reminded us that sports should be fun.
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