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At 5-foot-8, Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell stands atop the Sweet 16

Kansas State guard Markquis Nowell, a New York native, stretches during practice Wednesday in his first appearance on the court at Madison Square Garden. (Adam Hunger/AP)
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NEW YORK — Markquis Nowell grew up on 109th and Lexington, a self-described basketball junkie from the start. His older brother, father and uncles put him through punishing workouts on asphalt courts. He played at Rucker, Dyckman, Tri-State and West 4th, parks and playgrounds that either mold or break New York City point guards. “If you could survive and play on those type of courts,” Nowell said, “you could survive anywhere.”

Wednesday afternoon, wearing Kansas State lavender and purple for practice, Nowell stepped onto another New York court for the first time. He has never played at Madison Square Garden, where on Thursday he will lead the third-seeded Wildcats against No. 7 seed Michigan State in an NCAA tournament East Region semifinal. He sat Wednesday in the New York Knicks’ locker room, using the stall that once belonged to Carmelo Anthony. It felt surreal.

It is four miles from 109th and Lexington to the Garden. Nowell traveled them through hardship and skepticism, through three high schools and two colleges, through late-night workouts and resolute self-belief. Nowell had just two Division I scholarship offers, overlooked by coaches who could not see past his 5-foot-8 frame. He will take the court Thursday as a third-team all-American and the most electrifying player in the tournament.

“I’ve just been doubted at a young age because of my size,” Nowell said. “I realized at a young age my work ethic, my passion and my heart will overpower and supersede anything that is thrown my way. I put my trust in God that one day I would be seen as a good player.”

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Through two rounds, no player has made a bigger impact on the NCAA tournament than one of its smallest. Nowell has scored or assisted on 93 points — 24 more than the next-closest player in the tournament, according to ESPN. Only one other player since 1990 — Murray State’s Ja Morant in 2019 — totaled at least 20 assists and 40 points before the Sweet 16, according to CBS.

Nowell’s 17 points, 14 assists and six rebounds powered the Wildcats’ breezy opening victory over Montana State. In the second round, with Kansas State trailing much of the game against Kentucky, Nowell scored 27 points, had nine assists and nabbed three steals, a display of will dappled with flourish. He swished step-back three-pointers at the end of the shot clock, zipped stylish no-look passes, bulled his way to the basket, drained 10 of 11 free throws and flexed his muscles after crucial plays.

“What stands out to me is his confidence,” Kansas State graduate assistant Jaycee Cruz said. “No one can take that from him. It’s bulletproof. You can see it in the way he plays. He’s a good, steady, gentle spirit. But he’s a monster on the court.”

Coming up the hard way

As a little kid, Nowell promised himself he would be the best player ever to come out of New York City. He and his older brother would shoot together until they collapsed on a bench and fell asleep, then would wake up and keep practicing. Even when he stopped growing shy of 6 feet, Nowell did not alter his aspirations. His Twitter handle is @MrNewYorkCityy.

Like few positions in sports, the New York City point guard carries a distinct aura. “You do have a different type of swag playing out here,” said Michigan State point guard Tyson Walker, who played at Christ the King against Nowell. “You just got to be tough. You got a different type of finesse with you.”

“He embodies every part of it,” said Chris Chavannes, who coached Nowell in high school. “They’re dynamic. They’re tough. They can score in every way humanly possible — and sometimes not possible.”

Nowell started his high school career at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City. He moved to Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn for two years before he applied to the Patrick School in Union, N.J. Seton Hall Coach Shaheen Holloway, an alum who at the time recruited the New York area as a Seton Hall assistant, insisted Chavannes accept him.

“Don’t get caught up with his size,” Holloway told Chavannes. “He can flat-out compete with anyone.”

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Nowell moved in with Chavannes, who is also the school president. Chavannes would receive text messages at 1 or 2 a.m. from down the hall: “Coach, can I go work?” Chavannes would hand the keys to the school to his nephew, who would drive Nowell to hoist shots.

“I get to wind down and just lock in and focus,” Nowell said. “Nobody’s in the gym. I get the whole gym to myself.”

Chavannes came to understand where Nowell’s drive came from. Nowell once explained to Chavannes that when he was younger, a building fire had forced his family into temporary homelessness. For a time, Nowell slept in Central Park and used public facilities to shower.

“Pain,” Chavannes said. “At times, frustration. He’s a really sweet person when you get to know him. He plays with that wonderful smile. He often would reflect back on those times, and it was painful. I can’t imagine anybody experiencing that and not feeling pain, even after the fact. You don’t forget those things.”

Unwavering focus

Nowell received scant recruiting attention. Most of it came from Division II schools. Only Holloway — then the head coach at nearby St. Peter’s — and Arkansas Little Rock offered Division I scholarships. Nowell believed leaving home and playing in a slightly stronger conference offered the best path to proving himself to high-major coaches. He spent three years at Little Rock and transferred to Kansas State in 2021.

Cruz, the Kansas State graduate assistant who previously trained NBA players, met Nowell this offseason. One of their first conversations came after a practice. “Jaycee, I’m chill. I’m a good dude,” Nowell told him. “But between those lines, I’m a killer.”

Nowell negates his lack of height with a blend of quickness, strength and intelligence. Most of all, he leans on confidence.

“Mentally, he’s bigger than a lot of people on the court,” Cruz said. “There are a lot of guys that are tall. He can sense that if there’s a mental midget on the court, it’s over.”

Coach Jerome Tang found the skeletal remains of a basketball program when he arrived at Kansas State last offseason after two decades as an assistant at Baylor. The Wildcats had gone 14-17 and then scattered to the wind. Only Nowell and forward Ismael Massoud, another New Yorker, returned from last year’s team. Big 12 media picked them to finish last.

Over lunch one day during the brief period when Nowell was one of two scholarship players on the roster, Tang told him he would do everything he could to construct an NCAA tournament team.

“Coach, I don't care if we have five dudes,” Nowell replied. “We're going to the tournament.”

Tang transformed Kansas State with a phalanx of transfers, led by third-team all-American forward Keyontae Johnson. The Wildcats finished third in the rough-and-tumble Big 12, rose to No. 15 nationally and reeled off 25 wins and counting.

“In my very first meeting with the team, he had unbelievable eye contact, and he was nodding his head in agreement with the things I was saying,” Tang said. “I just felt there was a heart connection there. From the moment after that meeting on, he’s been all onboard. We’re not here without Markquis Nowell staying.”

Taking charge

At a news conference Wednesday, a reporter asked Nowell whether he would find motivation in solving Michigan State’s defense, which has stymied elite point guards during the tournament.

“I determine how the game is going to go,” Nowell replied. “You have all types of Hall of Fame coaches that scouted me and tried to stop me. So I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”

On Christmas this past year, which also happened to be his 23rd birthday, Nowell went to Kansas State’s practice facility alone. He still likes being in the gym by himself.

“The ones who do, they stay committed to the game,” Nowell said. “They stay focused. They keep basketball first. The players that don’t get sidetracked and focused on the things that don’t matter most.”

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Nowell separates himself through not only the volume of his labor but the meticulousness of it. He asks managers to mimic specific ball-screen coverages at certain spots on the floor. He realized long ago that he needed extra space to get off his shot, so during some sessions he attempts 120 three-pointers from the logo.

He is convinced opponents underestimate him, that he is too quick for them, that they are not used to defending passes and shots from the angles in which he attempts them.

“What may seem like a disadvantage to somebody else,” he said, “is somebody’s real strength.”