April 17, 2021

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Arkansas guard Jalen Tate tops his father and brother with Sweet 16 trip, but he wants more

7 min read

It wasn’t until the very end, when the buzzer sounded to seal a two-point Arkansas victory over Texas Tech for eternity, that Razorbacks guard Jalen Tate could feel secure that his team had advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

So to get a guy from the Tate family this deep into March Madness, it only took three men to make four attempts over a period of 22 years. Jermaine didn’t get there with the Cincinnati Bearcats in 1999 or 2000, though the Bearcats were the higher seed both times. His eldest son, Jae’Sean, had a shot in 2018, but his Ohio State Buckeyes lost a tough second-round battle. Younger son Jalen will go where no Tate man has gone before.

However: Jermain’s daughter Jada, sister to Jae’Sean and Jalen, scored 12 points in a narrow victory earlier this month that advanced Tiffin College of Ohio to the Division II Sweet 16. So who’s really got the bragging rights?

“Actually, Jada does have bragging rights for the time being,” Jalen told Sporting News with a wide smile. “We give Jada all the props, all the credit. We’re definitely full-fledged behind her.

“But I’m not done yet.”

MORE MARCH MADNESS: Live scores | Updated bracketTV schedule

Indeed. The Elite Eight and Final Four beckon for the Razorbacks, although they’ll have to win a Sweet 16 game Saturday at 7:25 p.m. against Oral Roberts and then defeat the winner between Baylor and Villanova to conquer the NCAA South Region.

And it could be said that the universe owes the Tate family a Final Four after what occurred with Jermaine’s Bearcats in the 1999-2000 season.

With Jermaine as the team’s starting center, a defensive wizard averaging 1.1 blocks and 4.6 rebounds in 24 minutes per game, Cincinnati entered the college basketball postseason 21 years ago with a 28-2 record and the No. 1 ranking. Then, Jermaine’s front-court partner, Kenyon Martin, the unanimous national player of the year, broke his leg on a routine play and his college career was done. After a second-round NCAA Tournament loss 10 days later to Tulsa, so was Jermaine’s.

The one chance for Jae’Sean at NCAA Tournament glory came in 2018, when Chris Holtmann took over the Buckeyes program and the 1-2 punch of Tate and Keita Bates-Diop led Ohio State to a successful 25-9 season. But an early Big Ten Tournament exit led to a No. 5 NCAA Tournament seed, and that meant being matched up with No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the second round. The Buckeyes rallied from a halftime deficit but fell 90-84.

Jalen’s first shot at March was blocked by COVID-19. At Northern Kentucky, he was the MVP of the Horizon League Tournament as the Norse won the league’s automatic NCAA bid in March 2020, one of the last conference tournaments to be completed before the pandemic shut down all of college basketball two days later.

This is his moment, and his father feels it deeply.

“It’s crazy, because I mentioned it to my daughter the other day: Wow, you and Jalen have gotten to the Sweet 16, and none of us had ever done it,” Jermaine told SN. “They’ve all accomplished something different that I haven’t. I have a younger daughter, Jocelyn, going to Bowling Green next year, and the three of them won state championships; Jalen didn’t. And now he’s made it to the Sweet 16. So that trumps almost everything. That Sweet 16 is a whole ‘nother ballgame.”

As one might expect from two brothers playing the same sport a few years apart, Jae’Sean and Jalen were highly competitive, but they are much different players. Jae’Sean is built like an NFL outside linebacker and has confounded experts at every level of the game. He seemed built to be the leading scorer in the history of the Mid-American Conference, an undersized power forward who would physically overwhelm a succession of 6-8 centers in that league. Instead, he went to the Big Ten and became a four-year starter and top-20 career scorer at Ohio State.

MORE: Arkansas vs. Oral Roberts: Odds, picks, predictions

He has fought his way into the NBA, as well, after stops in Belgium and Australia. He has become a starter for the Houston Rockets and averages 10.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.

“I actually talked to my brother last night and had to make sure: ‘Did you make it to the Sweet 16?’,” Jalen told SN. “Having those bragging rights over my brother and my father is something I like to have as far as my college success so far.

“My brother has his rebuttal, as far as being in the NBA.”

Jalen did take the mid-major route, signing to play for John Brannen at Northern Kentucky but red-shirting because of a hand injury his freshman year, when the Norse reached the NCAA Tournament and lost to Kentucky. He stuck around after Brannen left for Cincinnati and enjoyed his season playing for Darrin Horn and winning that Horizon championship, but the opportunity to move last spring as a grad transfer brought opportunities at Georgetown, Gonzaga, Minnesota and the alma maters of his father and brother, Cincinnati and Ohio State. He selected Arkansas and coach Eric Musselman.

It has been an ideal choice. Joining with fellow transfers Jalen Smith (Indiana) and J.D. Notae (Jacksonville) and freshmen Moses Moody and Jaylin Williams, Jalen Tate has been a part of an extreme makeover of the Razorbacks program. Whereas last year’s Hogs were a fire-at-will 3-point team with guard Mason Jones attempting 194 and Isaiah Joe a whopping 275, nobody on this squad has tried even 170. These Razorbacks play a fast style that is more dependent on the nation’s No. 10 defense.

Jalen has fit squarely into the Arkansas operation, bringing a thoughtful, calming presence to the attack and his intelligence and length to the defensive end. He was an important part of the D that held Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer, to 11 points — well short of his 24.5 average — in a December non-conference game Arkansas won 87-76.

“He was very capable of pulling up from range, and we worked on that a lot in practice,” Jalen said. “I think we were a little too soft on his pick-and-roll coverages, when I look back at the film now. We’ll definitely have to adjust to that, especially when there’s a high ball screen with him and (forward Kevin) Abanor — just keep them under control and be able to push up through the screens, get through as much as we can.

“If we can do that, I think we can have a pretty good chance of slowing them down.”

As one might surmise from that response, Jalen’s future could lead him to coaching after his playing career ends. Jermaine played 10 seasons overseas, in so many nations that it’s hard to recall each one in an instant. He was in Venezuela, Argentina, Turkey and Croatia. He played year-round the first half-dozen years, going from place to place depending on what country was in season. His final three years were played in Japan.

MORE: Ranking each Sweet 16 team’s chance to win it all

It kept him away from his family, but not so much that he wasn’t around to train each of his kids as a basketball player.

“I was definitely tough on them,” Jermaine said. “I had to make adjustments with the girls. I realized they didn’t respond the same way. I don’t know if it was because they saw how hard I was on the boys.

“It’s like any other coach would have to. You have to treat everyone differently. In terms of Jae’Sean and Jalen, I could pretty much get on them the same way, but I had to address it a little different with Jalen. But at the same time, I had to do less teaching with him. People always say: What does he do good? And I say: He’s a brain. He knows everything. You can draw up something. He’ll get it, and he can take it further. He’s always been like that.”

Jermaine drove across Interstate 70 to Indianapolis for the Razorbacks’ first two games and plans to be there this weekend for the Oral Roberts matchup and what might lay beyond. He was able to see a few games at Arkansas in person but missed the SEC Tournament because he was at Jada’s Sweet 16 game at Tiffin.

It is the sort of delight that only a parent can know, and at the same time a reminder of what happened to close his own college career two decades back.

“I definitely think about it, think about how great it would have been,” Jermaine said. “It’s just how stuff happens, and that’s what I try to explain to Jalen.

“You see these seeds fall, you know you’ve got the COVID — it’s always stuff that jumps in there that affects the path, and you just want to be on it at the end. This happened, this happened and this happened, and it was meant for you to win it. And just enjoy the ride. Because it’s always going to be what-if with me. That’s why you have to appreciate it and enjoy it.”

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