March 18, 2023
Greensboro, North Carolina, USA
Kansas State Wildcats
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. Nae'Qwan, you've mentioned before that this was kind of a dream come true, and I'm wondering if you could expound upon that. Tell me exactly why this is a dream come true for you.
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: It's a dream come true because growing up where I come from in Harlem, like, not every kid gets an opportunity like this. So I just want to thank God and thank my family in order to keep me pushing and doing what I have to do and my teammates around me, they help support me as well, so...
Q. I've got a question for both Keyontae and Nae'Qwan. When you are going up against a guy that had 25 rebounds the night before you play him, what's your mindset to kind of keep him off the glass?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: It's going to be a team effort. We know he gives them a lot of second-chance points, so we just have to limit their offensive rebounds, box him out, find him when they get shots up. He is going to get his no matter what. That's what he do. He was national Player of the Year last year.
We have to have a team effort on him. We all will come together and have a solution for it.
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: He pretty much said it. Definitely a team effort. We have to make sure we rebound, all five guys in the paint, so we can limit them from getting second-chance points. So just offensive rebounding. Definitely a team effort.
Q. Keyontae, you mentioned last night that you and Oscar have a relationship. Can you just talk a little more about that?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: I mean, I have known him since high school. He was one of -- the main person that reached out to me when I was going through my -- when I collapsed in the game. We have just been close since then. I text him. He texts here and there, probably once every two months or something. But we are real cool. Like one of my brothers.
Q. Keyontae, obviously Coach Cal talked about how he got emotional just seeing you and I think he offered you to score on your senior night. What did that mean to you, and just going up against his teams in the past, what do you remember of those matchups?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: It means a lot from Coach Cal. He is one of the great coaches. We have a great relationship. Just playing against them and just showing the respect they have for my game. Last year he wanted me to score, but I didn't know at the time, so I just catch the floor. But I really appreciate Coach Cal and everything he has done.
Q. Nae'Qwan, when you watch film of Oscar and his rebounding abilities, what is the most impressive thing about his ability to kind of control his body within the air and kind of create space by using his body?
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: I mean, he is a really good player. He is real physical, and I feel like, you know, his strength helps him. Especially he has a high motor. So, you know, you just have to limit him getting deep paint touches. We need to limit him from being close to the rim. You just have to box him out.
Q. For Markquis and Keyontae, I was just curious if you might be able to fill me in on just the experience of having Nae'Qwan on the team this year and maybe his upside going forward.
MARKQUIS NOWELL: Nae'Qwan is a tremendous player and an even better person. To have him on the team this year is a blessing because he just started playing basketball, what, four years ago, so his upside is really high. He still has a lot of things that he could work on and get better, and he is already so talented.
So just having him this year is a huge piece of our success on our team, and I can't wait to see down the line how much better he gets.
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: Yeah, Nae'Qwan is a big piece for us. He spaces the floor out for us and mismatch for the other teams. That helps get everybody else involved in the offense and scoring.
I mean, like he said, he only played four years. It's his first year on a big stage, and he has done a helluva job at it. Just he has a great upside, and I can't wait to see what he's got for sure.
Q. Markquis, Cason Wallace, the Kentucky point guard is big. He is a big guy. What's the challenge of playing against a bigger guard, and just what are your impressions of him?
MARKQUIS NOWELL: I've been playing against big guards my whole life. I'm 5'7" on a good day. So that wouldn't be a challenge to play against bigger and tougher opponents.
My heart will determine how the game will go, and I'm going to leave it all on the line, you know, tomorrow, but this is a total team effort. This is Kentucky versus K-State. This is not about me and Cason, so I just -- I'm going to do everything in my power to get the win and help my team win.
Q. Markquis, what does it mean to be a basketball player from New York City?
MARKQUIS NOWELL: I mean, it's a blessing. I get my toughness, my grittiness from just playing in parks in New York City. Like Nae'Qwan said, coming from where we come from, a lot of kids don't get this opportunity to play on this stage, to play in college basketball, and at this level. You know, I'm just embracing it. I'm trying to be an inspiration to kids back home to show them that you can do whatever you want to do if you work hard, believe in God, and trust yourself.
Q. Markquis, I have two for you. First off, what time did you actually fall asleep this morning I guess it was? Secondly, do you think having some athletic bigs like Nae'Qwan and David can actually work to your advantage in this game where you are playing against a team that has a traditional five?
MARKQUIS NOWELL: To answer the first question, I went to sleep around, like, 4:00 a.m. and woke up at 10:30, but that's the grind. I'm thankful for it. That means we survived and advanced.
Secondly, I mean, guys like Nae'Qwan and David and Baybe are really good bigs because they give us three different looks. Nae'Qwan spaces the floor out. He is like a guard. And David and Baybe give us that inside presence that we need, the rim protection that we need.
I feel like tomorrow will be a great challenge for us and the bigs to step up to help out the team win with containing Oscar Tshiebwe. And just we have really good bigs, and tomorrow will be a great challenge for them.
Q. Question for any of you guys. You played in a great league, had all kinds of high-end competition this year. Does Kentucky remind you of any of the teams you've faced so far either in watching them on TV or in film study?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: I mean, they have similar players that resemble from other teams. I mean, I feel like everybody plays physical, fast. They get out on fastbreak like TCU, so we know we have to limit them off that, and they rebound like West Virginia.
We kind of are used to it. We know what it takes to win and what we have to do as a team to get it done.
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: Like Keyontae said, they do have some similar players that we've gone against in our conference. I don't think we've had to play against a center like Oscar, like a dominant big like that. That will be something new to us.
I think with the plan that we have I feel like we'll execute to the best of our ability.
MARKQUIS NOWELL: Yeah, like both the guys said, we play in one of the toughest conferences in the country. We play in the Big 12. Every night is a tough night, so it won't change from that aspect. But like Nae'Qwan said, we haven't faced a big like Oscar yet, so it will be a total team effort on stopping him and limiting him to one shot and one opportunity.
Q. For Markquis and Nae'Qwan, I know it's one game at a time, but a win tomorrow means Madison Square Garden. Being from New York City, is there extra motivation to now get to the Garden?
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: There's definitely some motivation. Motivation to continue playing and motivation just to play in the Garden. So that's that.
Yeah, but like you said, we want to take everything one at a time and focus on what we have to do right now.
MARKQUIS NOWELL: It's definitely some motivation to go back home. I didn't go home in three years. I stayed at my school and just worked out, so it will be a blessing just to go back to Madison Square Garden, my hometown.
But we have to take it one day at a time. We have to focus on our scout today, focus on our game plan on how to stop Kentucky. But, yeah, it's some motivation.
Q. Coach Calipari talked about the challenge you guys present as a matchup because you have a lot of kind of positionless players, but he said on the flip side you guys have to adjust to their style too. Do you see this as kind of a game of contrasting styles? Who do you like as far as the style?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: I mean, I feel like if we just focus on ourselves, we'll be fine. I mean, we are still watching film, still learning them, but I feel like we have -- like he said, we're in the toughest conference, so we faced different styles of play and how different teams play. We played an SEC team before, so, I mean, I don't think it will be anything hard that we can't contain really.
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: Yeah, like what Keyontae said, I don't think it will be something that will be much of a challenge besides Oscar, but, you know...
MARKQUIS NOWELL: We play in the toughest league, like I said, in the country. We play in the Big 12. From top to bottom, you know it's a tough night. I like my chances with my guys because we are gritty, we are tough, we are hard-nosed. We have a great coaching staff from top to bottom, and I know that they'll do a good job of game planning versus Kentucky.
Q. For Markquis, I think everybody assumes 5'7" is a disadvantage. I'm curious, what do you think are the advantages of being a smaller point guard that you can do against some of the bigger defenders?
MARKQUIS NOWELL: When I fall, I'm closer to the floor than everybody else, so (laughing) that's an advantage. Nah, but, I mean, my toughness and my heart just overpowers any height or any structure to anybody. I just play with that passion.
Q. This is for anyone who wants to answer, but normally the first game of the tournament is the most difficult. You get through that, you get that under your belt. How far can you guys take this thing? Do you have any specific goals in mind now that you have gotten the first one?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: I mean, our goal from the beginning of the season was the national championship, so, I mean, we always just take one game at a time and never try to look ahead and focus on other schools and other outcomes. Just worry about what we can control.
Yesterday we went 1-0, so now we're trying to focus on Kentucky and go 1-0 there so we can get to Madison Square Garden to the Sweet 16.
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: Most definitely. I feel like --
MARKQUIS NOWELL: Can you repeat the question? We forgot.
Q. A lot of times the first game of the tournament is the toughest. You know, a sense of relief that you have gotten that under your belt. And now that you've gotten that, how far can you take this thing?
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: We're just going to go one at a time. Getting a win yesterday, it was good for us, and so I feel like that gave us the momentum going into this next game. I feel like we're going to execute the plan to our best ability.
MARKQUIS NOWELL: I keep hearing that the first game is always the toughest game, but I never understood it because I never played in March, but we're going to approach it like how we approach every game, which is going 1-0, winning the day, doing rehab, and just doing everything that we've been doing throughout the course of the year because it's been giving us success.
We're not looking too far ahead. We're not looking in the past. We're looking at the present and focusing on that.
Q. Markquis, we've talked to you a lot this year. I can't remember too many times where you've made jokes in press settings. You've done it twice now today. Is there a reason why you are lighter, making jokes at this time of the year in the NCAA Tournament?
MARKQUIS NOWELL: I mean, life is fun. It's a blessing to be here. I'm just happy and grateful that I get to be here playing in March Madness. So just having fun. And that's a part of my personality too, so...
Q. If this is off base, just ignore it. I'm wondering, did you follow Tyler Ulis, who was UK's 5'8" point guard about five years ago?
MARKQUIS NOWELL: Dang, you did your research. It was about five years ago. Tyler Ulis, before I even knew he was playing at Kentucky, I studied him. I watched him in his college days on what gained him success.
So just his defense and just his play-making ability I watched and studied over the course of the years and tried to implement that into my game.
It's just so crazy to see that he is now on the sideline, a GA at Kentucky, and it feels like a full-circle moment because just a few years ago I was asking him tips on what I could do to become a better player, and he helped me. He is much like a big brother to me.
Q. The Kentucky players said that they weren't watching any of these other March Madness games. Have you guys been tuned in, and any of those games stand out to you?
KEYONTAE JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, we've been watching it. We just try to use some of the game as motivation. We seen Purdue, UVA is coming in, and taking every possession or they lose one possession. We're just trying to learn from it and just -- we didn't want to be that example as well, so we just trying to go out there and have fun really.
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: We definitely use those games as motivation. We seen, like, lower seed teams come in and play, like, very hard and upset some teams. Like Keyontae said, we didn't want that to happen to us, so we tried to remove, like, the seeding from our names or whatnot and just play as hard as we could.
MARKQUIS NOWELL: It's March. I mean, it's the best time of college basketball, so it's hard not to watch games nowadays.
But I just watch basketball. I'm in love with basketball. So whenever I get a chance to wind down and turn on the TV, you know, I watch some games here and there.
Q. Nae'Qwan, I'm just curious, you mentioned playing ball for four years now. We had talked in the summer about your experience and heading forward. Can you describe to me just what the season has been like for you and also where you can go from here?
NAE'QWAN TOMLIN: Only the Lord knows where I can go from here. And, you know, over the season, in the offseason I'll be working hard and stuff like that. The experience was new to me, like coming into this league. I've always heard that it was going to be like the best conference in college basketball, and I knew it was going to be super physical.
So that was something I wanted to do so I can prove myself to families and stuff like that and the coaching staff. They believed in me. Definitely want to get better for the following year.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, guys.
Questions for Coach.
Q. Coach Tang, interested in what you thought of Nae'Qwan's play this season and just his upside?
JEROME TANG: I think the adjustment to Division I basketball, it actually went pretty quick for Qwan, but then the adjustment to scouting reports then kind of took a toll on him, and he is learning how to work consistently. That's going to help his game, you know, to be more consistent because we've seen him be really good and then really bad. He has as much talent as anybody as I've ever coached.
So his upside is through the roof. We just need him to just continue to develop the same old boring habits and build a consistent work ethic.
Q. How valuable was David last night, and how valuable can he be going forward?
JEROME TANG: David was huge. He did a great job defensively. He might be our best defensive player with his ability to switch and guard multiple positions. And then, you know, his speed at his size separates him from the other guys his size. If we can get close to double figures and rebounding the way he did, it's going to be very valuable to us.
Q. Last night Ed Cooley said that Oscar Tshiebwe has that "it" factor like Dennis Rodman kind of thing on the rebounding. When you look at him on film, kind of what stands out to you about the challenge that a guy like that represents and how you as a team sort of try to keep a guy like that contained, I guess, for lack of a better word?
JEROME TANG: Well, I didn't have to look at Oscar on film. We recruited him really hard when he was coming out of high school, then watched him play for two years and competed against him at West Virginia. You know, so I've seen it up close and personal. He does have that "it." Oscar -- in their wins and losses, Oscar gets double-doubles, and he does that.
We will try to make it difficult for him, but guys like that do what they do.
Q. I asked some of your players who Kentucky kind of closely resembles, if anyone, in your league, and that great competition that you faced. Do you have any thoughts along those lines?
JEROME TANG: I don't know about as a team. We have, like, individual comps. Like each guy plays similar to another. We was unable to find a comp for Oscar Tshiebwe in our league.
Q. Two questions for you. First I have a quick one. Were you able to sleep last night?
JEROME TANG: No.
Q. So you are on zero sleep right now?
JEROME TANG: I don't know about zero, but it went pretty quick (laughing).
Q. Secondly, I know you're a guy who likes to make the other team to react to what you do. I'm wondering with athletic big guys like David and Nae'Qwan, do you think you can make Kentucky react to those guys with the post players that they have?
JEROME TANG: You know, we're going to have to just be who we are. You know, we can't change anything. I don't know. I think Cal is a guy who they do what they do. You know, I want to make the game plan as simple as possible for our guys so we can play with freedom, and I'm sure he wants to do the same with his.
Q. Coach Tang, how do you challenge your guys to be physical and willing to kind of hit bodies on the inside against a physical player like Oscar Tshiebwe?
JEROME TANG: Yeah. You can't wrestle with Oscar, right? You're going to lose that. We don't have anybody on our team that can go into a physical wrestling match with him, so we're going to have to use our speed and our quickness to make it difficult for him, and then we're going to have to gang rebound.
Everybody asks these questions about Oscar, right, but it's those dudes out there that are making threes that those are the ones that determine winning or losing. We have a whole team out there to guard. It's not just Oscar Tshiebwe.
Q. One of the other guys that you have to deal with is the point guard, Kentucky's point guard, Cason Wallace. Big, strong guy. You know, on the surface you are looking at you've got a little guy; they've got a big guy. How do you anticipate heading into that matchup?
JEROME TANG: It sounds like they got a big guy at every position, and we got a little guy at every position, so, you know (laughing), we're going to have to figure something out. Cason is another kid that I recruited really hard out of high school, and I know him very well. I've just always thought he was the ultimate winner in the state of Texas in high school basketball. It's going to be a challenge.
Q. Coach, Nae'Qwan mentioned that this was a dream come true for him earlier, yesterday. I'm just curious what kind of dream this has been for you.
JEROME TANG: Well, this whole year has been a dream come true for me from the moment I got the job, to putting the team together and, you know, just through the whole course of the season, the way our guys have embraced us as a staff and embraced each other and culminating in playing in the ultimate tournament.
You know, it's a dream and one that we don't want to see end. So I'm super excited about the opportunity we have for tomorrow. You know, we just want to keep living this thing, trying to be together a little bit longer.
Q. Coach Calipari has emphasized over and over how difficult it is to be a coach among the college ranks. Would you agree with that? And coming from being an assistant coach for so long under a successful program, there is a fraternity of college coaches out there. Do you feel that sense of camaraderie out there among the coaching staff?
JEROME TANG: I know what the guys that I have lived life with the last few years, last 20 years, we have more than a camaraderie. It's a family. I mean, one of those guys is my daughter's godfather, and the other one I call about any advice that has nothing to do with the game of basketball.
You know, so, yeah, we do build this bond together. And, you know, it's difficult to do what we do, but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. Anything in life that's worth accomplishing or great is going to have difficulties in it.
I'm thankful to be in a position where the things that are important to me, you know, character, integrity, love, you know, faith, that I get to pour into my young men every day, I wouldn't want anybody else doing it.
Q. Yesterday's second session was very blue when it came to the crowd. Of course, it's been really tough to play on the road in the Big 12. How much of the message is being able to play in front of what might be a road environment tomorrow?
JEROME TANG: I'm color-blind so I didn't see that. It all looked purple to me. I mean, you know, we have played in tough environments, and we've won in tough environments. We've lost in tough environments. Tomorrow is not going to be about the environment. It's going to be about the ten dudes that are on the floor.
Q. How much has Cam progressed this season, and what has he run the most in?
JEROME TANG: Well, early on Cam was going 100 miles an hour, and he has learned how to slow down and play at different paces. Also figuring out what he can do to help us win, that he -- his value. And sometimes that means actually doing less or trying to do less. He has just really embraced what we need him to do to give us a chance to win.
Q. Coach, you mentioned about how far a lot of the questions have been about Oscar in regards to Kentucky. They have other guys that are threats. Jacob Toppin is one of those guys who is really playing well this time of year. Just curious about your thoughts on what you have seen from him.
JEROME TANG: I mean, Jacob and Reeves, I mean, those two guys, long, athletic guard wings, wherever you need them. You know, both of them are good defenders. They cause you problems with their length, rebound.
Toppin, whenever Cason gets his ten-second break, then, you know, Toppin plays the point for him. He is just so valuable and so versatile and experienced, right? Like, experience trumps talent all the time right now. So you just can't put a number on the value of that.
Q. What would you say is the hardest thing about getting ready for a second game in the tournament on 36 hours prep time? Is it rest? Is it actually game planning from you guys? What's the hardest thing about it?
JEROME TANG: Coming down off the high of the win. Then, you know, getting the rest that's needed for your body to recover and figuring out the balance of how much is too much and not enough.
Q. I have a bigger picture question for you. You hired Kevin Sutton on your staff as director of strategies. I'm curious what was your thinking in adding a position like that at a time when we see more college coaches adding more positions, recruiting specific, or analytics? It seems like there's more coaching infrastructure going into doing the job.
JEROME TANG: Yeah. Kevin in particular I've known for over 25 years. We worked Five Star Camp together back when I first started coaching, and he is someone that I really leaned on and would call and ask questions because he had started Montverde Academy and before that Montrose Christian. I think he is one of the best player development guys in the world. Worked with USA Basketball. So just super blessed to be able to even have the opportunity to hire him.
I've got three -- I guess there are four of them now -- former GAs and managers that work in the front office at the Phoenix Suns. Those guys told me that the four guys that are on the bench across the country are probably the same. It's the next level that separates you.
So my chief of staff, Marco Borne; Kevin Sutton, director of strategy; Austin Carpenter, you know, player development; Anthony Winchester in the video coordinator's role, they do a great job of building our GA program, and our managers, because those guys spend way more time with our players than we actually are allowed to.
That's what I feel like is going to bring separation in our program because it will enhance our development of our players because we're not always going to get the guys that are already there.
Not that I don't think that we're going to land some five-star guys that people think are one and done and all of that, but, you know, we're going to find that talent that's there and be able to develop them, and then people are going to ask, Man, where did they come from?
Q. Can I ask a follow-up to that? Is this just kind of the nature of the way things are going in college basketball? We've seen in college football analysts and quality control types kind of filling these positions. Is this just what it's going to take in the new landscape of the portal and everything else? Takes more hands to do the job?
JEROME TANG: Yeah, I mean, a long time ago somebody said many hands make light work. It greatly applies to what we do. We have to spend more time recruiting our own guys than we do the guys that are not here, and the goal is to be able to show them the big picture that we have for them.
Otherwise -- when I was at Baylor, I think the national average was 43 percent transfer rate. Our average was 16 percent. I hope to develop that same type of program here where guys don't want to leave, but they want to come.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.
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