Jerome Tang had plenty of opportunities to leave Baylor for head jobs over the years, but the Bears always seemed to be on the upswing and his close relationship with Scott Drew made it difficult to envision leaving Waco.
Once the Bears won the national championship, though, there was a feeling that Tang had accomplished all he could as an assistant, and the time was coming to take a leap of faith and head out on his own.
He landed at Kansas State.
Now, the longtime assistant — known both for his sideline acumen and recruiting chops — will try to return the Wildcats to Big 12 relevance after the departure of Bruce Weber following a third consecutive losing season.
“It's obviously a process building chemistry, but when you bring in good kids that care about the right things, that part of it becomes easier," Tang said. "We have a team that likes each other. They spend a lot of time on and off the court. We still have to work on them understanding each other's strengths on and off the court and that takes experience.”
Especially given the number of newcomers on the Kansas State roster.
Fourteen of the 16 players last season graduated or transferred, including star freshman Nijel Pack, who ended up at Miami. Markquis Nowell and Ismael Massoud stuck around, and they'll form the cornerstones of a team that Tang quickly rebuilt through the prep ranks and a heavy dose of the transfer portal.
The most intriguing name is Keyontae Johnson, the Florida forward who was once a preseason SEC player of the year but who hasn't played since collapsing during a game in December 2020. Johnson spent 10 nights in the hospital and, while his family has never said what doctors believe caused the episode, Kansas State has medically cleared him to play.
That was something doctors at Florida and many other schools were unwilling to do.
“I’ve been through the tournament, some of the other guys on the team haven’t been, so that’s what coach is telling me,” said Johnson, who did say he takes medications before practice. “I know the experience, I know what it takes. So trying to use my voice to help lead the younger guys on the team.”
The Wildcats have three other Power Five transfers in David N’Guessan from Virginia Tech, Jerrell Colbert from LSU and Cam Carter from Mississippi State. Desi Sills played 126 games for Arkansas State. Other transfers include Tykei Greene (Stony Brook) and Abayomi Iyiola (Hofstra) and junior college transfers Anthony Thomas and Nae’qwan Tomlin.
Then there's freshmen Dorian Finister and Taj Manning, a pair of three-star recruits.
“They ranked us 10th (in the conference), but we definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Nowell said. “The expectation is higher. There’s a different level of intensity that we have each and every day.”
BACK IN CHARGE
The last time Tang was a head coach was in 2003, when he was on the sideline at Heritage Christian Academy in Cleveland, Texas. He was an assistant at Baylor until 2017, when he was elevated to associate head coach.
“He did a remarkable job everywhere he’s been and Baylor wouldn’t have the success we had without him,” said Drew, who is entering his 20th season with the Bears. “We’ll always be brothers for life. And we’ll always cheer for each other when we’re not playing.”
BACK FOR MORE
Nowell averaged 12.4 points and 5.0 assists last season, and will be responsible for running the show at the point, while Massoud is a rangy forward who averaged 6.8 points but had 13 against West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament.
WELCOME TO THE MIDWEST
It spoke volumes of the progress Tomlin has made in a short time since his arrival that he was picked to join Nowell and Johnson at Big 12 media day. He grew up in New York but didn't play high school basketball. That journey began at a Texas prep school, and it continued at junior colleges back in New York and at Chipola College in Florida.
Tomlin became a junior college All-American before signing with the Wildcats in early May.
BIG 12 FAMILIARITY
Tang isn't the only one on the Kansas State staff with some Big 12 familiarity. His top assistant, Ulric Maligi, was plucked away from Chris Beard's staff at Texas. The rest of Tang's staff includes Jareem Dowling, who came from North Texas, and Rodney Perry, who built Link Academy in Missouri into one of the top prep programs in the country.
Kansas State opens Nov. 7 against Texas-Rio Grande Valley, then heads to California for an early game against another Power Five school. The Wildcats also are in the Cayman Islands Classic, play Nebraska in Kansas City, Missouri, and then play Florida — in what will be an emotional game for Johnson — in the Big 12-SEC Challenge in January.
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