NEW YORK — To get a sense of where Kansas State and Florida Atlantic sit in college basketball's hierarchy, look at their transfers.
The Wildcats have nine players who previously played at other Division I schools, several of whom were productive multi-year starters in mid-major conferences. Most notable among them: Markquis Nowell, the 5-foot-8 point guard who put on the performance of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night in an overtime victory against Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
FAU's transfers — players such as Bryan Greenlee and Vladislav Goldin — arrived at the Boca Raton, Florida, school after compiling thinner resumes at programs in the so-called power conferences. Those moves were more of a leap of faith for both FAU coach Dusty May and the players coming aboard.
“Obviously, I was close to home, so that was a bonus," said Greenlee, a Gainesville, Florida, native who played sparingly in 19 games at Minnesota as a freshman in 2019-20. “But just interacting with the staff and Coach May for the brief time that I did, I just felt like it was the best move for me."
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The Conference USA champions from FAU and Kansas State from the powerful Big 12 will be on equal footing with a trip to the Final Four at stake Saturday night. The ninth-seeded Owls (34-3) face the No. 3 seed Wildcats (26-9) at Madison Square Garden in the East Region final.
Kansas State is a testament to the power of the transfer portal in this era of college basketball. First-year coach Jerome Tang had two players on his roster after taking over the Wildcats: Nowell and Ismael Massoud. Both had transferred to Kansas State under former coach Bruce Weber and decided to stick with the new staff.
Tang said Nowell and Massoud were two of his best recruiters, helping him land Keyontae Johnson, who was a starter at Florida before a heart condition nearly ended his career; Desi Sills, who started games in each of his four seasons at Arkansas State; and Tykei Greene, who was a second-team all-America East player at Stony Brook.
“I knew Markquis, I knew who he was,” said Johnson, who averages a team-high 17.7 points per game. “I seen his game before. I wanted to play with a guard like him.”
Nowell was an all-conference player at Arkansas-Little Rock before transferring to Kansas State after the 2020-21 season.
Former Kansas State assistant Shane Southwell, now an assistant at Northern Illinois, was the connection that got Nowell to Manhattan, Kansas.
Southwell grew up in Harlem, like Nowell. He knew Nowell's father and brother and got to know Markquis when he was still in high school.
“The connection was pretty strong,” Southwell said. “Having all the people around him trusting me was very, very important for him. And it was important for me to get it right.”
Southwell is convinced Nowell would have popped onto the big stage a few years ago had the pandemic not forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Nowell had led Arkansas-Little Rock to a Sun Belt regular-season title.
Building on previous relationships is a crucial piece of portal recruiting everywhere.
Southwell said he tries to keep track of all the players he comes across as high school recruits, often projecting their career paths with an eye toward possibly recruiting them again out of the portal.
A place like Kansas State is an attractive transfer destination for players looking to prove themselves in the Big 12.
Southwell said those relationships are even more crucial in mid-major conferences as he scouts players who are in the portal after struggling to fit in at the higher levels of Division I.
He said often those players need to have their confidence rebuilt.
“You almost have to play therapist. You have to play a counselor,” Southwell said.
There is also a lot more projection to do because players transferring down usually haven't been productive at the college level.
May got to know Greenlee and guard Jalen Gaffney, who spent three years as a reserve at UConn, during his time as an assistant at Florida.
Goldin, a 7-foot-1 center, appeared in the portal after playing 10 games at Texas Tech in 2020-21.
Goldin also played internationally with a Russian team and at Putnam Science Academy, a prep school in Connecticut.
“(Putnam Science) had all their stuff online, so we studied him thoroughly and knew how good he was,” May said.
The next part of portal life May will likely have to deal with after this breakthrough season is retention and keeping top players such as Johnell Davis, Alijah Martin and Nick Boyd from being wooed by the allure of playing in a more high-profile conference.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to be fluid every single day,” May said earlier this week. “Luckily I’m still relatively young and have a lot of energy because I don’t think there’s going to be a day where you can just relax and not fear of your phone buzzing.”