After upset of Missouri, Norfolk State eyes Florida
Saturday, March 17, 2012
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Kyle O’Quinn has long been a known commodity in the after-thought of a conference in which he plays.
Now everybody seems to know his name.
The gregarious 6-foot-10, 240-pound center is the face of the 15th-seeded Norfolk State Spartans. That’s the lovable little engine of a team that shocked second-seeded Missouri in the NCAA Tournament on Friday and, as O’Quinn said in the afterglow, messed up a lot of folks’ brackets — and, he jokingly added, even his own.
They’ve captured the imagination of the nation, and everyone wants to know if O’Quinn and Norfolk State (26-9) can do it again today against the tournament-tested Florida Gators (24-10).
A No. 15 seed has never made it to the round of 16.
“When you’ve made history and continue to try to make history, it’s kind of hard to refocus,” O’Quinn said Saturday. “We know what’s on the line. We know what we can do. We know the good feeling we had last night. We don’t want it to end.”
Florida has made the NCAA tournament 12 times in coach Billy Donovan’s 16 years as coach, won a couple national titles and reached a regional final a year ago.
The Gators, who beat Virginia 71-45 on Friday, have seen this story before and know Norfolk State is going to have a home-court advantage at the CenturyLink Center.
“Everyone loves the Cinderella story, underdog stories. Even if you’re neutral, you just love those stories,” said Florida center Patric Young. “They love to see the underdogs like George Mason and VCU make runs to the Final Four. We’d like to be the team to stop that run and not be a part of that run.”
O’Quinn plays, and embraces, the starring role for the Spartans.
Until Friday the senior was a virtual unknown outside the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, where he’s player of the year and two-time defensive player of the year.
He introduced himself to college basketball fandom at large with his 26 points and 14 rebounds against Missouri. It was his 20th double-double of the season and 39th in 67 games.
“He completely dominated the game on the glass,” said Young, who will guard O’Quinn. “When I finally saw him on film, I saw how skilled and talented he is, and he’s a really good defender, really physical. He overpowers a lot of guys he goes up against.”
Adding to O’Quinn’s appeal were those postgame quips where he talked about bracket busting, President Obama’s mistake in picking against the Spartans and even how he watched cheerleaders dance during timeouts.
Two or three hours after the upset of Missouri, O’Quinn said, he had accumulated about 2,100 new Twitter followers to more than double his total.
“Once in a lifetime feeling,” he said. “A win has never brought so much joy to a player, to a family.”
The New York native’s start in the game was inauspicious.
He showed up at Campus Magnet High in Queens as a 5-foot-11 ninth-grader and grew 11 inches the next three years. He was coaxed into going out for basketball his junior year, and he mostly warmed the bench.
Campus Magnet coach Charles Granby said O’Quinn could be such a goofball that he almost kicked him off the team.
“He just looked at me, and that made me even madder,” Granby said Saturday. “All he was doing was having fun. I got so angry with him because he was 6-10 and not doing what he could do. I told him he could make money at this someday. Finally, the light bulb went on.”
O’Quinn averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks his last year in high school, but no colleges showed interest. O’Quinn didn’t seem to care, either.
“You’ve got to understand — Kyle was a middle-class kid with mom and dad at home,” Granby said. “There was always money in his pocket. The girls loved him; the kids loved him. He didn’t have to sweat about anything. He wasn’t worried about getting a scholarship to college.”
The only scholarship offer came after Spartans coach Anthony Evans went to Campus Magnet to look at a point guard. But the big O’Quinn is the one who caught his eye.
O’Quinn visited campus and signed a letter of intent on the spot. He’s one of eight New Yorkers on the roster, along with Evans and assistant coach Robert Jones.
Evans, like Granby, said O’Quinn could be frustrating at first.
“We had to rein him in a little bit because he wanted to be a class clown,” Evans said. “You’d be running practice, and he’d be off to the side trying to tell jokes or pouring water down somebody’s back.”
Senior forward Marcos Tamares remembers those days.
“It’s cool to have him on the team and ease the tension a little bit,” Tamares said. “At the same time, he’s our best player, so that helps a little bit, too.”
Make no mistake, Evans said, O’Quinn put in all the hard work to make himself a great college player.
In turn, O’Quinn has helped raise the profile of a 7,000-student school with a modest tradition.
The Spartans’ 26 wins are the most since the program moved to Division I in 1997-98 and a 13-game improvement from last year’s 12-20 season. They were picked to finish fourth in the MEAC in the preseason and ended up second to Savannah State. They won the conference tournament for their first NCAA berth.
The school’s most famous basketball alum is Bob Dandridge, one of the top 1970s-era NBA forwards. A number of other Spartans have played pro ball, but none in the NBA since someone named Ralph Tally for the Chicago Bulls in 1987.
O’Quinn is projected as a possible draft candidate. Another big performance Sunday could enhance his chances, never mind what it could mean for his team.
“If they beat Florida,” Granby said, “all hell’s gonna break loose.”
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