NYC guards lead Michigan State, K-State to Sweet 16 at MSG

NCAA Kansas State Kentucky Basketball
Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell shoots over Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe during the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C.
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson

NEW YORK (AP) — Stories of New York City point guards have an almost mythical quality.

There are Hall of Famers and trailblazers such as Bob Cousy and Nate “Tiny” Archibald. In the 1980s, Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson followed a similar path — from the same Catholic high school in Queens to the Atlantic Coast Conference to the NBA.

From Pearl Washington to Mark Jackson, Stephon Marbury to Sue Bird, tenacious players forged by rugged games played at the famous courts at Rucker Park and West Fourth Street are a part of basketball lore.

And while New York City high schools haven’t been pumping out stars in recent years the way they used to, three of the four teams that have reached the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional at Madison Square Garden have point guards with Big Apple backgrounds.

Michigan State’s Tyson Walker and Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell will renew their acquaintance in the Sweet 16 when the seventh-seeded Spartans (21-12) face the third-seeded Wildcats (25-9) on Thursday night.

“I grew up playing in parks with him,” Nowell said. “I just want to give a big shoutout to New York City for breeding tough and gritty guards and just give him a shoutout.”

Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler reacts watching his shot next to Alec Kegler (24) during practice before a Sweet 16 college basketball game at the NCAA East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in New York. AP Photo/Adam Hunger

The other point guard who’s making a homecoming this week will only be able to watch his team at The Garden. No. 4 seed Tennessee managed to reach the second weekend of the tournament without the injured Zakai Zeigler, who blew out his left knee on Feb. 28.

“I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to be here in this situation,” said Zeigler, who grew up on Long Island and finished his high school career in the Bronx. “So now that I’m back here and I can have some pizza, I feel great.”

The Volunteers (25-10) face ninth-seeded FAU (33-3) in the late game of the doubleheader.

The 5-foot-8 Nowell became one of the breakout stars of this NCAA Tournament when he went off for 27 points in a second-round victory against Kentucky.

Nowell, whose Twitter handle is @MrNewYorkCityy and is @mr.newyorkcity on Instagram, grew up in Harlem, attended high school in the Bronx and went to college at Arkansas Little-Rock before transferring to Manhattan — Kansas, that is.

“I made a promise to myself back when I was in high school that I was going to do anything and everything in my power to be the best player that came out of New York,” Nowell said. “So I kind of keep that edge and that kind of just reminds me every day that I wake up that I still have more work to do. Guys like Carmelo (Anthony), Bernard King and all the greats came out of New York, so that just keeps me grounded and keeps me working hard.”

Ask Nowell about the New York City point guards he idolized in high school and he brings up the Mavericks’ Kemba Walker, who led UConn to a national championship and was a first-round pick in the NBA draft in 2011, and the Pelicans’ Jose Alvarado, who played at Georgia Tech.

Alvarado went to Christ the King High School in Queens, a power in both boys and girls basketball that also produced Bird and the Spartans’ Walker.

Like Nowell, Walker started his college career at a mid-major (Northeastern) and transferred after two seasons to Michigan State in 2021.

According to 247 Sports rankings, the last top-30 national recruit to come from a New York City high school was Moses Brown, a 7-footer who went to UCLA from Archbishop Molloy, where Smith and Anderson starred in the ’80s.

“Are we as good as we once was? Well, if you take away all the kids that grew up in New York that go to prep school outside of New York … and consider them New York, yes, we are,” said Cardozo High School coach Ron Neclario, the winningest NYC public school coach ever. “Do we have as many high, high, high majors? Maybe not, but we have plenty of low-majors. We have plenty of mid-majors.”

Where Nowell leans into his New York roots, Walker takes a low-key approach.

“Just got to be tough. Got a different type of finesse with you,” he said.

Walker was also a difference-maker in the second round of the tournament, scoring 23 points to lead Michigan State past second-seeded Marquette.

“I think sometimes the New York swagger is a very cocky swagger, and sometimes that’s good,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He’s kind of had the happy medium. He’s got enough cockiness to be confident, and yet he’s an unbelievable kid.”

Izzo joked after beating Marquette about how Walker owed him cab ride and a slice of pizza for helping him earn a trip home.

“Got me my pizza last night,” Izzo said. “I’m looking for the cab ride today.”

Nowell is one of four Kansas State players from the New York area, along with Tykei Greene, Nae’Qwan Tomlin and Ismael Massoud. None has ever played at The Garden, only dreamed about it.

“I had my big brother, my father, my uncles working me out every day for a moment like this,” Nowell said. “Standing here, being here at Madison Square Garden.”

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