Mar 17, 2023; Greensboro, NC, USA; Kansas State Wildcats guard Markquis Nowell (1) controls the ball against Montana State Bobcats guard RaeQuan Battle (21) in the second half at Greensboro Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Diminutive Markquis Nowell is used to being the smallest player on the court, while typically making a big impact.
The standout point guard will aim to lead third-seeded Kansas State to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018 when it battles another band of Wildcats in sixth-seeded Kentucky on Sunday in NCAA Tournament second-round East Region play at Greensboro, N.C.
The 5-foot-8 Nowell matched his career high of 14 assists and also had 17 points, six rebounds and three steals as Kansas State (24-9) posted a 77-65 victory over Montana State in Friday's first round.
"It's a blessing to tie my career high, but I have to give credit to my teammates for getting open and finishing the plays," Nowell said. "It was just a well-executed ball game and game plan that the coaching staff came up with, and the players, we executed it."
Nowell has a single-season program-record 257 assists this season, shattering the mark set by school legend Steve Henson (186 in 1987-88). The 14 assists against Montana State also is the most in an NCAA Tournament game by a Kansas State player, passing Henson's 12 in a 73-70 win over Purdue on March 25, 1988.
Co-star Keyontae Johnson has found it to be a privilege to play with Nowell this season.
"Markquis, he is an excellent point guard," said Johnson, who had 18 points and eight rebounds in the first-round win. "To me he could shoot, create for himself, and he sees the court at a high rate. When we get out on a fastbreak, he sees you, we are locked in and do what he executes. To have a point guard like that is a blessing, really."
Kentucky's star is 13 inches taller and 100 pounds heavier than Nowell. And 6-foot-9, 260-pound Oscar Tshiebwe dominated the interior and grabbed nearly every rebound in sight during Friday's 61-53 victory over Providence.
Tshiebwe collected a season-best 25 rebounds -- 11 on the offensive boards -- to overcome a meager eight-point offensive outing but Kentucky (22-11) wasn't hindered in the least.
The performance was reminiscent of why Tshiebwe was the consensus National Player of the Year for the 2021-22 season. Still, Kentucky coach John Calipari gave mixed reviews of his performance.
"Defensively, when he is alert and bouncing, he is really good," Calipari said. "When he stands behind the defender, he is not really that good in there. They just turn and score on him. ... I'm probably playing him too many minutes. And then he only scored eight points. But he got 25 rebounds."
Kentucky's win over Providence marks its first in NCAA Tournament play since 2019. A year ago, Tshiebwe was part of a dejected crew that was dispatched by 15th-seeded Saint Peter's in the opening round.
Tshiebwe mentioned to his teammates that it was time to put last season's upset loss in the rearview mirror.
"I said this year we come in and fight. Last year doesn't matter anymore," Tshiebwe said. "Now you know this tournament is about fighting. It's about who fights the most. That's the one who is going to keep moving. So we came in with the mentality, and we forget the past, and we're just fighting right now."
Antonio Reeves scored 22 points and Toppin added 18 against Providence.
Meanwhile, Kansas State coach Jerome Tang isn't going to shy away from going up against the more well-known brand of the two Wildcats.
"This won't be my first time playing against Kentucky," Tang said. "We broke their 55-game (home winning) streak when I was at Baylor at Rupp Arena."
Tang was referring to Baylor's 64-55 victory over Kentucky on Dec. 1, 2012, when he was an assistant coach.
In terms of Kansas State's history, it is just 1-9 all-time against Kentucky. But that win was big, a 61-58 victory to reach the Elite Eight of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.