OMAHA, Neb. — Back on March 10, one of Norfolk State’s assistant coaches pulled Kyle O’Quinn aside during the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title game against Bethune-Cookman.
The wide grin didn’t leave O’Quinn’s face. That was the problem.
“I told him, ‘You’re in a championship game. You’ve got to stop smiling,’ ” assistant coach Robert Jones said. “He said, ‘I can’t play like that. I can’t play with a mean face all the time.’ “
Jones shook his head. What more could he do? All season, Norfolk State’s coaches and teammates prodded O’Quinn to get meaner on-court. But that’s not part of the gregarious senior center’s personality.
“We tell him all the time you’ve got to get that dog in you, but he’s just joking around,” senior forward Marcos Tamares said. “Off the court, he’s a clown. Even sometimes on the court he’s one.”
O’Quinn became the face of this year’s March Madness after 26 points, 14 rebounds and a season’s-worth of smiles in 15th-seed Norfolk State’s upset of second-seeded Missouri on Friday.
He bantered, nodded and smiled at the CenturyLink Center crowd chanting “N-S-U” during the game. He ran to hug bench players after a key second-half basket. He embraced dazed Missouri guard Phil Pressey at game’s end, wrapping his long right arm tattooed with “Shoot for the moon” around the sophomore.
In two hours, the antics — and inside-outside game — transformed O’Quinn into a sensation. Bellows of “O’Quinnsanity” greeted him. By Norfolk State’s celebratory dinner at Granite City Food and Brewery late Friday, O’Quinn gained 2,100 new Twitter followers.
None of this surprised Norfolk State’s players or coaches, in the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance. O’Quinn is, well, different.
“He’s a big kid,” coach Anthony Evans said. “He’s kind of got to get his emotions under control because when he first came he was all over the place.”
Added senior guard Chris McEachin: “He likes the attention. He likes the spotlight. He’s kind of the Magic Johnson type.”
O’Quinn played two years of organized basketball at Campus Magnet High in Jamaica, N.Y. Norfolk State was his only Division I scholarship offer. Norfolk State assistant Larry Vickers, who coaches the team’s posts, remembered O’Quinn as a kid who stood 6-foot-9. There wasn’t much more to his game.
Even O’Quinn conceded he was “pretty bad” after his first year of basketball. His equally-emotive father, Tommie, didn’t expect his son to develop into someone who recorded 20 double-doubles this season, never mind constant double- and triple-teams in the MEAC, and blocked the fourth-most shots in the country.
As a freshman, O’Quinn drove Vickers crazy by settling for jump shots instead of using his size. Improving O’Quinn’s post moves became Vickers’ obsession. They developed a bond along with the ability to read defenders and post them up.
If O’Quinn isn’t smiling during a game, Vickers knows something is wrong. That’s usually not a problem.
“His basketball ADD kicks in at times,” Vickers said. “If we have an hour workout, I know at about the 52-minute mark I’m going to have to reel him in. He just enjoys life. Every moment of life. Everybody loves him.”
In the locker room, OQuinn is known for attempts to rap, awkward dance moves he invents and dry humor mirroring Seinfeld.
“Now,” Vickers said, “the country can see it.”
The coach grinned.