MANHATTAN — Kansas State guard Omari Lawrence can’t remember how long it took him to adjust to life in the Sunflower State after growing up in New York, but he knows it was a lengthy process.
When he moved across the country more than two years ago, he had never seen a cow and was used to walking everywhere. The sights, smells and cars all took some getting used to. It was a culture shock. But now that he is a contributing member of the K-State basketball team, he admits the wide-open spaces have their pluses.
“I like it out here,” Lawrence says. “It’s peaceful and relaxing. In New York, it is real noisy and crowded and compact. It’s real different. It’s cool.”
Still, nothing beats the thrill of going home.
That’s why a trip to the NIT Season Tip-Off means more than playing a pair of meaningful games at a famous venue for Lawrence and two other K-State players this week. Senior forward Jordan Henriquez, junior guard Shane Southwell and Lawrence are no doubt looking forward to those parts of it, but as New York natives they have played at Madison Square Garden before.
The rush of returning home to play in front of family and friends for the first time in years has them more excited.
“From the moment the schedule came out, the three of us have been talking about these games,” Henriquez said. “Getting to New York, that was our main focus. We knew we had to be prepared and win our last two games to get there. I can’t wait.”
In between games, they would like to show their teammates around the city and maybe even invite them home for dinner. At the least, they will meet each other’s families at Madison Square Garden.
All three said they anticipated anywhere from 20-40 family members and friends to attend their 6 p.m. semifinal against Delaware on Wednesday. Win or lose, the Wildcats will play again Friday. But a victory will earn them a spot in the tournament’s championship game against the winner of No. 4 Michigan and Pittsburgh.
Lawrence has the most experience playing at the venue. He started his college career at St. John’s and played roughly half his home games there as a freshman. Access to the historic arena was one of the reasons he wanted to stay home for college. He will share his past experiences with his teammates.
So will Southwell, who has loads of memories of the building.
“Think of all the great shots that great players have made there,” Southwell said. “Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Reggie Miller. There is so much history, and you never know who is going to show up courtside. It’s a different setup. The court is real bright and everything else is dark. It’s almost like you’re playing on stage with a spotlight on you. It’s a special feeling.”
K-State accepted an invitation to the tournament in large part because former coach Frank Martin wanted to reward his three New York players with that special feeling, a trip home and two games that would boost the Wildcats’ recruiting presence in the Big Apple.
New coach Bruce Weber hasn’t recruited the area hard since he took over last offseason, but he endorses the idea of his players returning home for games.
“I think it is great,” Weber said. “It’s a great opportunity to play in front of family and friends. At the same time, they have to keep their perspective on it and can’t get all hyped. Their focus needs to be on our team being successful.”
No worries there.
Lawrence, Southwell and Henriquez all miss New York, but they call K-State home. Winning a tournament championship is their No. 1 priority.
“Being able to play in the finals against Michigan or Pitt, it will help us maybe get into the top 25 and let people know that we are still the same K-State basketball team that plays hard,” Henriquez said. “People might have moved on from us and forgot about us, but we always come back. It will be good to be able to show everyone how we can play.”
K-State headed to Maui — The Wildcats will play in perhaps the most prestigious early season tournament, the Maui Invitational, in 2014. Other teams are Arizona, BYU, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Purdue, San Diego State and Chaminade. It will be K-State’s first trip to the tournament since 1998. The Cats will play next season in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.