Kansas State’s Ismael Massoud has come up clutch in the Wildcats’ run to the Elite Eight — Andscape
NEW YORK — For Kansas State forward Ismael Massoud, there’s a motto that he follows and writes on every pair of basketball shoes that he wears:
“One shot now.”
What’s the meaning behind those three words?
“I take every shot for what it is,” Massoud said. “I can’t focus on the shots that I missed; my focus is on the shots that I’m going to make.”
On Thursday, Massoud made the biggest shot of his basketball life, sinking a baseline jumper with 17 seconds left in a 98-93 March Madness instant classic win against Michigan State to advance to the Elite Eight on Saturday against Florida Atlantic.
That shot by Massoud came four days after the previous biggest shot of his career: a go-ahead momentum-changing 3-pointer with 2:20 left against Kentucky — his only made shot of the game — which helped Kansas State reach the Sweet 16.
The spotlight on Kansas State basketball focuses on Markquis Nowell, and rightfully so. But the Wildcats wouldn’t be in the Elite Eight if not for the play of Massoud who, in less than a week, hit clutch jumpers to end the seasons of coaching legends John Calipari of Kentucky and Tom Izzo of Michigan State.
Not a bad homecoming for Massoud, known to his teammates as Swish Ish, who averaged just 5.5 points this season.
“I’ve always just trusted the work,” Massoud said after scoring a season-high 15 points in Thursday’s win. “It’s times you work in the dark when no one’s watching you that allows you to shine when the lights are on.”
Massoud has put in the work since he was 10, when basketball replaced skateboarding as his sport of choice.
While that shift led him on the athletic path of his mother, Alicia Rodriguez-Barrera, a two-year starter on the University of Houston basketball team in the 1990s, it was his father, Hany Massoud, a television producer who was born in the United States after his parents immigrated from Egypt, who spent hours helping his son perfect his craft on the outdoor courts in East Harlem.
While Massoud played AAU basketball alongside some of the top New York City players (Orlando Magic point guard Cole Anthony was one of his teammates), he was one-and-done on the local high school basketball scene. After his freshman season at Cardinal Hayes High School for Boys in the Bronx, Massoud left for The MacDuffie School, one of the nation’s top boarding schools, in Granby, Massachusetts.
“I’m from the Bronx and a friend of mine who takes a special interest in kids said this kid is really good and everybody is overlooking him,” said Jacque Rivera, who coached Massoud at The MacDuffie School, where he currently works as the director of athletics. “I didn’t know if he was good or bad but when I met him and his family — he’s a smart kid with great parents — I said, ‘I’ll take him.’ ”
It took a half a season for Rivera to become a believer.
“It wasn’t anything he did in a game or something he did in practice, it was more that he was so mature and grounded,” Rivera said. “It didn’t hurt that he was pretty daggone good.”
Massoud played in the shadow of James Bouknight, the Charlotte Hornets guard who left New York City for Granby to gain more exposure. But even as he stayed in the background, he impressed Rivera with his work ethic.
“Ismael’s the only kid to never get detention for abandoning curfew at MacDuffie because he was always working on basketball,” Rivera said. “Curfew was at 10:30 but I knew he was always in the gym late working on basketball, because I lived right next door. I would never penalize him because he was always in good academic standing.”
Harvard was impressed by his grades and athletic ability, and coach Tommy Amaker offered Massoud a scholarship to Harvard. But Massoud accepted an offer from Wake Forest instead, which marked the beginning of a four-year basketball odyssey during which he played for four college coaches in four years.
Coach Danny Manning, who recruited Massoud to Wake Forest, was fired following the 2019-2020 season and was replaced by Steve Forbes. After a season playing under Forbes, Massoud was encouraged to explore other options following the 2020-21 season. Coach Bruce Weber convinced Massoud to come to Kansas State, but Weber was forced out following the 2021-22 season and replaced by Jerome Tang.
Instead of leaving Kansas State, Massoud was one of two players who stayed after Weber’s departure (Nowell was the other).
It was not a perfect match initially.
“For me it just took a little longer to understand what the coaching staff wanted from me,” Massoud said. “Coach Tang always tells us his door is always open. At first, I didn’t really want to have those conversations because [they were] hard conversations to have. But I realized this team was winning and I just wanted to be a part of it. I knew I could help and I knew I could play a big part for this team.”
Despite playing his fewest minutes since his freshman year, Massoud played a huge part in these last two games. It was Tang showing faith in Massoud — and Massoud knocking down big shots against Kentucky and Michigan State — which gave Kansas State a chance to reach its first Final Four since 1964.
“Ish decided that he wanted to be a part of this thing and he wanted to contribute,” Tang said. “He’s got some serious talent, and as a coach I had to figure out a way for him to display that.”
For Massoud, it was a chance to display it at home in front of family and friends in his first basketball game at Madison Square Garden.
“Coming into the arena [Thursday] I got chills, and in the game I was thinking, ‘I’m subbing in at the Garden for the first time,’ ” Massoud said. “But in the game, it wore off pretty quickly. I got up a shot pretty fast and got immersed in the game.”
Thursday’s game also came during the first day of Ramadan, an important day for Massoud, who is Muslim. On the eve of the game, Massoud and his teammate Abayomi Iyiola spent Wednesday night at a local mosque.
“We prayed all night, for over two hours,” said Massoud, adding he’s not currently fasting but will make up the days once the season is over. “Hopefully, what I’m doing will inspire other Muslim athletes.”
Rivera said Massoud’s play is inspiring his former teammates, who are all part of a group chat. Rivera is ecstatic that a player who worked hard while existing in a supporting role is getting a chance to shine on college basketball’s biggest platform.
“Think about it: He left home at 15, gave up the nurturing of his mother and guidance of his father — receiving that from a distance — to come home to Madison Square Garden in the NCAA tournament to have the best game of his life,” Rivera added.
“This kid has always been rooted in faith. I’m glad he’s being rewarded.”