Spontaneous or scripted? What really happened on Markquis Nowell’s daring alley-oop pass

Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

It is a play that will go down as one of the most brazen game-winners in NCAA Tournament history, but no one could seem to agree if it was spontaneous or deliberate.

Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson have connected on their fair share of lobs this season, but none bigger than the alley-oop in the final minute of overtime that helped seal Kansas State’s 98-93 victory over Michigan State in a March Madness instant classic in the Sweet 16.

With the game tied and time dwindling at Madison Square Garden, Nowell dribbled 40 feet away from the basket and appeared to be arguing with K-State head coach Jerome Tang about the play call. What happened next is sure to be replayed every March for years to come.

While still arguing with his coach, Nowell suddenly snapped an alley-oop pass from just inside half-court to a back-cutting Johnson, who caught the ball in front of the basket as he was rising in the air and smoothly reverse dunked it to put the Wildcats in the lead for good.



“(Nowell) wanted to run one play and I wanted to run another,” Tang told reporters. “While (Michigan State) was caught up in us bickering with each other, (Nowell) and Keyontae just made eye contact. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time moments and that’s what happened.”

It was an all-time alley-oop and an all-time pass from Nowell, the New York City native who fittingly broke the NCAA Tournament record with his career-high 19th assist in the game.

Surely a play that was executed so flawlessly with so much on the line had been rehearsed before, right?

“We just made eye contact,” Johnson offered up.

“It was just a basketball play between me and Keyontae,” Nowell added.

The Eagle studied the game film to determine how exactly K-State pulled off such a memorable play and why K-State’s insistence that the alley-oop was spontaneous could be just like Nowell and Tang arguing — just for show.

How K-State pulled off game-winning alley-oop play

With the game knotted at 92 in overtime, Michigan State’s Tyson Walker pulled up for a potential go-ahead shot and the Wildcats rebounded the miss.

As Nowell brought the ball up the court, TBS cameras showed Tang on the sideline with his arms perpendicular and his hands folded in. It’s possible he was telling Nowell to slow the pace down, but it’s also possible that was the signal for what was about to unfold.


That would also explain why Nowell immediately turned to former NBA star Isiah Thomas, sitting courtside with former Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves, and told him, “Watch this.”

“Dang, I’ve got to watch what I say,” Nowell said while laughing at the podium afterward. “I was talking to Isiah because I think he had a friend over there and he was rooting for them. I’m like, ‘Y’all not going to win today.’ I just kept looking at him for some added motivation, but it was nothing but cool vibes with them.”

As soon as Nowell crossed half-court, Desi Sills stood up from the bench and appeared to make the same motion with his arms to the players on the court.

Meanwhile, Nowell and Tang barked back and forth with each other: The coach yelled something that the star point guard demonstrably waved off. Then Nowell held up two fingers, perhaps setting the time count because Tang immediately followed with a chop, then what could be construed as a countdown — holding up two fingers, then one, then nodding to Nowell as if to tell him, “Throw it.”


Johnson’s cut from the right corner was also timed to Tang’s hand movement, as the 6-foot-6 senior made his cut along the baseline as soon as his coach raised one finger.

Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard, who was guarding Johnson, was caught ball-watching for just a moment, but that split-second was all K-State needed to create an all-time memorable moment with impeccable timing — on a play that the K-State locker room unanimously claimed was unscripted.

“That was just spur of the moment,” Sills said. “I think they just made eye contact. They’re both All-Americans for a reason.”

“I don’t remember us calling a set there,” said David N’Guessan, who seemed genuinely surprised by the lob. “I just remember turning around and all of a sudden I see the ball going over my head and I turn and see Keyontae grabbing it and dunking it. I had to make sure I got back on defense, but the whole time I was thinking, ‘Did he really just do that?’”

Cam Carter watched the play unfold from the opposite corner and said he was just as surprised.

“I don’t think that was planned,” Carter said. “I have no clue. All I know is I told Key that he was crazy for that. He really dunked it backwards in crunch time at the Garden. I’m still telling him he’s crazy for that.”

How K-State took advantage of Michigan State’s defense

To fully appreciate K-State’s game-changing alley-oop play, a basic understanding of Michigan State’s defensive strategy is needed.

It was clear from the outset that Tom Izzo wanted to limit Markquis Nowell’s dribble penetration as much as possible by how aggressively the Spartans’ help defenders were playing the gaps. If K-State stationed a player in the corner and Nowell had the ball out front, Michigan State routinely had that corner defender cheat up the floor to try to close down Nowell’s driving lanes.

According to K-State players, Tang and his coaching staff had the Wildcats prepared for exactly how to attack that kind of defense.

“We worked on that in practice and we were ready for them to over-play everybody like that,” Sills said. “We worked on the 45 cut and the corner cut because we knew that was going to be there all night long.”

According to Synergy’s data, K-State finished with 24 points on outrageous efficiency of 1.85 points per possession on cuts. Michigan State’s defense had been vulnerable to cuts all season, but no team exploited that weakness more than the Wildcats, as the Spartans were allowing just 5.8 points per game on cuts before Thursday’s regional semifinal.

It was a master class performance from Nowell, a magician who could not have succeeded without the help from teammates like Johnson, N’Guessan, Ismael Massoud and Nae’qwan Tomlin cutting for him.

“Quis does a great job of drawing two defenders,” Johnson explained. “When he draws two defenders, I look to see if my man’s head is turned and I just keep cutting to the open lane and he does a great job of finding you.”

Even with Michigan State’s defense revolving around keeping Nowell outside the arc, the diminutive point guard routinely busted the Spartans’ ball-screen coverage by dribbling around or splitting hedges. And when he gained the upper hand, Nowell relentlessly punished the Spartans time and time again.

The most common way he racked up his NCAA-record 19 assists was by attacking the “low man” on Michigan State’s defense, which is the weak-side defender lowest on the floor and closest to the basket. When Nowell penetrated the arc, Michigan State’s low man was forced to rotate over to cut him off. That led to a layup line for K-State because whomever was in the corner had practiced cutting straight to the basket and Nowell had the vision and timing to deliver a strike.

“We got caught mesmerized on Nowell,” Izzo said. “He’s a special player. We actually did a pretty good job on him (7-for-18 shooting). It was the assists that really killed us and the back cuts.

“That’s what makes him a great player. It’s not only the plays he makes, but the position he puts people in that put you backpedaling. I really was disappointed in some of those back cuts because we had really talked about them.”

Another way Nowell picked on Michigan State’s defense was exploiting how far up the court its help defenders were positioned. The Spartans were dedicated to being in the gaps to try to stave off Nowell drives, but that aggressiveness made them susceptible to well-timed back cuts.

Tang declined to talk in specifics about what exactly the K-State coaching staff identified in their film study of Michigan State’s defense, but did acknowledge the Wildcats emphasized the importance of 45-degree angle cuts and corner cuts to the basket in preparation for the game.

“Everybody guards a certain way and when you guard a certain way, there are certain things that are available,” Tang said. “Our guys took advantage of what was available.”

Fast forward to the end of overtime and it’s evident why Tang might have had a special play ready to pick on those Michigan State tendencies one final time.

Watch the play again and you’ll notice MSU defender A.J. Hoggard, who was defending Johnson in the right corner, set up about five feet above him on the floor and another 10 feet away — already anticipating cutting off a potential Nowell drive.

Michigan State’s defense did the same thing throughout the game, but in this moment, K-State had the perfect play — spontaneous or not — dialed up.

“I don’t know how Quis does it, but I believe God has blessed him with an unbelievable talent,” Carter said. “He can see things happen before they actually happen.”