Burwell: A star rises as Mizzou falls

2012-03-18T00:35:00Z 2012-04-06T20:09:22Z Burwell: A star rises as Mizzou fallsBY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

OMAHA, NEB. • Cinderella has arrived at the NCAA Tournament and in case you hadn't heard, there have been a few adjustments.

The more traditional March Madness script calls for some scrappy little guard to dazzle us with long-range jumpers. Think Bryce Drew. Steph Curry and Ali Farokhmanesh. Yeah, well think again.

This year's darling of March Madness is 6-feet-10, weighs 240 pounds, speaks with a New York accent, has a name right out of a William Powell movie, has a sweet baseline jump shot that reminds you of Rasheed Wallace and has a bubbling telegenic personality that conjures up Magic Johnson romancing the cameras.

Center Kyle O'Quinn and his No. 15 seed Norfolk State Spartans, fresh off their upset of No. 2 seed Mizzou in Friday's West Regional, has dazzled everyone with his sensational play (26 points, 14 rebounds) on the floor and his charm off it. He has been all over ESPN and was the toast of CBS and TNT. He has become a sensation on Twitter.

"Oh yeah, I just went from 1,000 followers to over 3,000 since yesterday," he gushed Saturday. "My cell phone is blowing up. ... But it's great to see all these people interested in what I'm doing."

He was surrounded by television cameras, microphones and reporters scribbling every word he uttered. Forty eight hours earlier, not many outside of Norfolk's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference knew who he was. Now, everyone who loves college ball is trying to find out everything about him, like how a kid that big, tall and talented gets out of New York City without any major school recruiting him.

There usually are only two reasons: Either someone made a mistake in recruiting or the kid wasn't that good. The short version of this story is, O'Quinn just wasn't that good.

By his senior year at Campus Magnet High School in Queens, N.Y., he was regarded as a 6-foot-10 project. He didn't play basketball until he shot up from 5-11 as a freshman to 6-7 as a junior, and even then the only reason he went out for the team was because he was the tallest kid in his school.

"I was kind of forced into basketball," O'Quinn said. "There was no where else for me to go after school but to the gym."

Once he got there, O'Quinn had no idea what to do.

"I lacked the things that other kids had," he said. "I lacked experience. I lacked getting discipline from coaches. I wasn't a bad kid, but only my parents ever told me what to do. So to listen to the coach and understand that he wouldn't tell me anything bad, that he was out for my best interest, (that) took some time to understand. Besides, I didn't even know the basics like what was a pick-and-roll. It was complex for me, but so simple to all the other players. It was difficult. But I grasped everything and was a sponge to the game and took in everything that someone wanted to teach me. How to tie my shoes. I grasped it."

O'Quinn says that even before his growth spurt he was one of the most popular kids in the school, and based on his personality you can understand that. Everyone liked him, and he knew it would not be good for his image or his ego if he was not playing. Once he figured out how much more popular he could be as a star athlete, he found his motivation.

By his senior year, he had grown from 6-7 to 6-10, but not a lot of recruiters were calling. Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans wasn't even looking for O'Quinn when he arrived in New York for his recruiting trip. He was there shopping for a little point guard, one of O'Quinn's teammates.

So what was it that attracted him to O'Quinn?

"It was 6-10," Evans said. "In the MEAC, you don't get that every day. ... We saw the skill and potential in him."

But it wasn't always easy going for Evans with O'Quinn once the big fella arrived on campus, in Virginia.

"He wanted to be the class clown," Evans said. "You wanted to run practice and Kyle is telling jokes on the sideline or pouring water down somebody's back. Those things happened to him as a freshman."

But then just like in high school, something clicked in his head.

"It was like, 'Why not be good? Why not be great?'" O'Quinn said.

He locked himself in the gym with assistant coach Larry Vickers. They looked at countless hours of tapes of NBA big men, learning how to shoot baseline jumpers, picking up a great spin move, hooks and an array of post moves he never had in high school. And then this year, Wilson Washington, a former All-America big man at Old Dominion and in the NBA in the mid-1970s, came to the staff, and he fine tuned O'Quinn.

"As I progressed each season, I felt more confidence," O'Quinn said. "But I still questioned myself. But in my sophomore year when they named me to second team All-MEAC, I thought, 'Hey maybe I'm doing something here that someone is noticing.' So I stuck to the plan. The next year I set my goals a little higher. I made first-team. Next year I set them even higher. And I got conference player of the year."

He has progressed to the point where he has opened a few eyes about playing at the next level and will be remembered as one of the great names of March Madness.

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Bryan Burwell

Bryan Burwell covers a wide spectrum of sports as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch.

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