On the Sprint Center floor, Jameel McKay cradled a prize, not a trophy: His nephew Josiah, nine months old that day, nestled against his beaming uncle’s clavicle. It was the first time in 2015 that McKay, Iowa State’s spirited 6'9" junior center, had seen his family. His mother, sister and Josiah began a through-the-night drive from Milwaukee to Kansas City as soon as the Cyclones advanced to the Big 12 tournament semifinals. And in the immediate aftermath of his team winning the championship last Saturday, McKay had the baby on board.
He might have been more gaga about that than the championship itself. “I don’t get to see him that much,” McKay said. “He’s so small, when I see him for that little bit of time, I never want to let him go.”
The Cyclones enter the NCAA tournament with gale-force momentum, winners of five straight games after trailing by double-digits in each. They’re a trendy pick for a deep run due to their selfless, explosive offense and a mystical ability to muster comebacks. In the middle of it all is an emotive ball of energy who was recently named the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year.
After sitting out the first semester after a mid-year transfer from Marquette the previous winter, McKay played only 21 regular-season games—and his 50 blocks still ranked third among Big 12 players. His defensive rating of 94.9 leads the team. He’s a bit lanky at 215 pounds, and he may not stifle the opposition like frontcourt monsters from Kentucky, Virginia and Arizona. But no one else on Fred Hoiberg’s roster offers the size, rebounding and rim protection package that McKay can. His reliability in those areas may be as relevant to a Final Four run as Iowa State’s offense or its resiliency.
“You just forget that he’s there, because you don’t have to worry about him,” Cyclones forward Georges Niang said. “He’s always going to be there to offensive rebound, tip it in, or get a dunk or block someone’s shot. Sometimes I don’t even recognize how well he’s playing.”
Not many recognize what McKay gave up to get to this position, starting with a few thousand bucks. Never mind that he wouldn’t see his family much in Ames; plenty of busy college players miss those close to them. After attending Marquette for one semester in 2013-14 and then deciding to transfer out without playing a game, McKay had to pay his own way at Iowa State until the second semester began.
It was not a universally supported decision, especially by “a lot of people looking (in) on the outside,” as McKay put it. “I knew what I was coming here for. It’s the best decision I ever made in my life. I may sacrifice a little bit of money. But being in this situation, I feel like I can make enough money to be able to pay that back.”
Upon his arrival, McKay attempted to feel out his new teammates and where he fit in instead of attempting to assert himself immediately. But he is a heart-on-sleeve guy, so his energy and emotions naturally nudged him along even as he tried to hold back. He ran the floor and sprang for dunks and opened eyes. “He just fit in perfectly,” junior guard Naz Long said.
When Long enters the Iowa State locker room now, he expects that he’ll find McKay smiling or gabbing. Or joking about how old he is—he’ll be 23 in September—and what part of him has fresh pain that day. And on days McKay is particularly grumpy, anyone within earshot will hear the Cyclones’ center describe the root cause. (And then, Long notes, McKay nevertheless is windmill-dunking just a few minutes later.)
No feeling is stifled. Everything seeps through the pores. Channeled properly, it’s the sort of demeanor that galvanizes an entire group. “I wouldn’t even just say it’s the people on the court,” Long said. “You can always see him waving his hands up and down, trying to get the fans involved. He’s a momentum-swinging player. He definitely does a good job getting other people to match his energy.”
For all the other strong personalities and talents on the roster—the colorful Niang was a first-team All-Big 12 performer and point guard Monte Morris made the second team—perhaps no one trips the wires for Iowa State as McKay does. After an emphatic dunk from Kansas’ Kelly Oubre in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 10, Long remembers McKay running the floor as if on rocket boosters for an alley-oop jam that changed the momentum at Hilton Coliseum.
Perhaps the best example, though, brought Iowa State a championship last weekend: With the Cyclones trailing by 17 early in the second half, McKay dunked off a pass from Niang. On the ensuing Kansas possession, McKay jumped a lane for a steal and a layup. He finished a 10-0 run with another dunk, a burst that ignited Iowa State’s epic comeback. “When (we’re) down, I always put it on myself,” McKay said. “My coaches and teammates, they always say we feed off you the most. Once I start doing that, it’s like the whole team starts to respond.”
This is important to recognize about McKay as well: He has been All-Defense, essentially, but not all defense. After a year and a half away from game action, he had to settle into a new role and scrape off rust; the result was seven single-digit scoring nights in his first 12 games. Over the last 12 games? Ten double-digit outings and averages of 12.8 points and 9.5 rebounds plus 60.2% shooting.
Still, it’s McKay’s presence as a defensive failsafe that, at least, gives Iowa State options. “We can get out and pressure guys and really trust him to be there to alter shots,” Niang said.
“When they do go by us, it doesn’t get any easier,” Long said, “because we have the Great Wall of China behind us.”
As scorching as Iowa State is right now, no single player will drive it beyond the Sweet 16 and therefore to heights not yet reached during Hoiberg’s tenure in Ames. Relying on a collective effort is more or less a driving philosophy behind the program. But there will be big men to stop and lulls to work through during the NCAA tournament. The solution to all that: Jameel McKay simply continuing to be himself.
“He’s an all-around dominant force that people have to keep their eye on, if they want a shot at beating us,” Long said.
In a corner of a locker room in Kansas City last Saturday, he conceded that he questioned his game and his personality during the patience-testing process that brought him from junior college to Marquette and then finally to Iowa State.
But, he then added, he’d done what he came to do. He was a Big 12 champion.
“I’m just happy it paid off,” McKay said of his journey.
In the moment, you could forgive him for forgetting there was, potentially, a long way to go.