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Fixing The Machine: How Malik Newman found his perfect fit

The Machine was broken.

Inside Humphrey Coliseum, surrounded by 10,575 empty seats after Mississippi State's 76-51 win over UT-Martin on Nov. 28, 2015, Malik Newman felt the most alone he'd ever been.

Two weeks into his freshman season, the gravity of a decision he now regrets weighed heavily. The 6-foot-3 guard and head coach Ben Howland hadn't been on the same page since Newman shocked the college basketball world by choosing the Bulldogs over a handful of blue-blood programs, including his current team, the Kansas Jayhawks.

In that moment, Newman knew his time in Starkville was over before it ever truly began. Everything, he felt, was spiraling out of his control, as his place in the basketball world was quickly becoming one of survival.

That afternoon had featured a five-point, three-rebound performance that was a far cry from the four championship seasons he spent at Callaway High School in Jackson, Mississippi, building a reputation as "The Machine" with an automatic jump shot and powerful consistency finishing at the basket.

For the first time in his life, the most decorated prep basketball player in Mississippi history couldn't shoot himself out of this jam. Instead, he sat inside a vacant arena, wondering how things had gotten this bad.

A transfer from Mississippi State was imminent, but not before battling through the most difficult year of his life.

"Looking back now, I kind of thank that person," Newman said this week. "I'm more mentally tough than I thought I was."

Nearly two-and-a-half years since that afternoon of self-realization, Newman was the last one up the ladder to cut down the net after his career-high 32 points -- including all 13 of Kansas' points in overtime -- led the Jayhawks past Duke for their first trip to the Final Four since 2012.

As Newman waved the nylon net in his left hand, flashing his million-watt smile to a crowd roaring in adoration, his comeback journey took center stage.

"It was just classic Malik," Callaway coach David Sanders said this week. "This is the first time anyone can say they've seen Malik Newman do what he did to so many people in high school on the college level."

'Things don't always work out like you think ...'

Years before he coached Newman as a junior at Callaway, Sanders and Horatio Webster, Newman's father, were teammates on the Mississippi Stingers, a semi-pro basketball team based out of Greenville, Mississippi. "Ol' peanut head Malik," as Sanders affectionately referred to the then 9-year-old, would tag along to his dad's practices inside gyms sticky with humidity in the Mississippi Delta.

"He was just this little kid running around the gym. You'd have to fight him for the ball every time," Sanders said. "We were knocking this ball all over the gym and I was amazed at how he never got upset. He would just run it down, take his loss, come back and go play somebody else. We were just trying to make him cry. But he wasn't built like that."

He was built to win, and to persevere. And by the time his junior season at Callaway approached in 2014, Newman had taken over the college basketball recruiting world. A member of the prestigious USA Basketball squad that won gold in Uruguay that summer, the guard came home to find out he was the consensus No. 1 recruit in his class.

Nearly every top program in the country sought Newman's talents. Kansas and Kentucky were among the earliest to offer the guard, but the first call Sanders received was from the team Newman tormented in overtime last weekend, Duke.

"Coach K called and was like, 'We have to have him,'" Sanders said.

Kansas was always where Newman pictured himself going from the start of his recruitment. But even in going against the grain and choosing Mississippi State in April 2015, where Newman would play in college wasn't the focal point of his bigger picture.

"We all thought it was a done deal," Sanders said. "He was going to do one year of college and he'd be gone. Everybody was so sure that Malik was going to be that guy to go light it up at State. Things don't always work out like you think they're going to work."

'Those were my lowest points'

Newman was never a fit in Howland's system, primarily a half-court offense that allowed teams to double-team or focus in on the five-star talent. To make matters worse, the guard was constantly battling through injuries that he later realized put his career in jeopardy.

Newman sustained a turf toe injury on his left foot before the 2015-16 season began. The kid who used to drag his dad to the gym at 5 a.m. and would sneak out of the house on game days in high school to get extra shots up wasn't looking to miss any time.

"Malik wasn't ready to come back [from the toe injury]," Horatio Webster said. "But him being young, wanting to play, he didn't tell anybody how injured he was. He thought he could do what he did in high school -- play hurt and still go out here and be really good. You can't do that on the college level. I felt like he never got well."

Newman said it was later discovered in an X-ray at Kansas that his turf toe injury likely caused a hairline fracture in his left foot that he played on his entire freshman season.

After avoiding injuries throughout his high school career, everything was piling up all at once. In addition to his foot, Newman struggled with in-game cramping and back spasms.

"I was trying to get my rhythm back, playing through the injuries. Those were my lowest points," Newman said. "Going through the whole thing alone. And then to add salt in the wound, me hurting my back, it got even worse."

Rock meet bottom.

A point of humility

His body and his spirits broken after that freshman season, Newman declared for the NBA draft in March 2016 but did not hire an agent. The feedback he received projected him somewhere in the second round, so returning to college provided the best opportunity. It just wouldn't be back at Mississippi State.

Newman announced his intentions to leave Starkville in late May and immediately became the top transfer player available. But going through the recruiting process all over again wasn't necessary. Kansas had always been the place Newman wanted to play, and Bill Self had long wanted the guard on his team.

"I had always had respect for Coach Self," Newman said. "I loved him as a recruiter, the same with Coach [Jerrance] Howard, the history and tradition of the program. The position Coach Self put kids in to be successful -- I just always felt like he couldn't hurt me, he could only help me."

Back at home for several months before making the jump to Kansas, Newman retreated to a place of familiarity, hoping to find solace inside the gym where he built himself into one of the nation's best.

His No. 14 jersey had been retired before Callaway reached the state tournament his senior season, a gesture by Sanders to honor history as it was being created. No other player in Mississippi high school basketball history had ever won four consecutive MHSAA state championships. Newman won his fourth title while averaging 29.2 points per game his senior season.

A banner with his name and number on it stared down at Newman as the guard struggled through a workout on the floor he used to dominate.

"We were just doing a basic catch-and-shoot drill and he just looked very, very out of shape," Sanders said. "I'd never seen him look like that. He wanted to work out but I think more so he just wanted to sit down and talk."

Back in Sanders' office, Newman sought refuge in the comfort of his old coach.

"I said you're at a point you've never been in your life," Sanders said. "You're at a point of humility. No one is saying Malik is 'the guy.' Everyone is against you right now. This is the point where you can really fly under the radar and put some good work in."

During that workout, Sanders realized Newman lacked the explosiveness that had once sent videos of him dunking over high school competition viral.

"I knew something was wrong with him," Sanders said.

The X-ray Newman had later that summer on his left foot revealed troubling news ahead of his redshirt season at Kansas.

"I remember Malik called me, he had been crying," Webster said.

"The doctor told me that I might not be able to get my full sprint back, be able to jump my highest," Newman said. "I remember going back to my dorm room thinking this could be the end of it."

Fresh start

Newman's redshirt season may have saved his career.

After receiving the news about his foot, Newman was lined up to go see orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews, but Kansas' doctors took a different course of action once it was determined that surgery wouldn't be necessary.

For three to four months after arriving in Lawrence, the guard had to shut it down. It was the longest he had ever gone without playing basketball.

His role, once he regained his health, was to run the scout team and get stronger. Lifting weights was never part of his regimen in high school and was something he wasn't able to do much of at Mississippi State because of his injuries. Much like everything else at Kansas, Newman was presented with the chance to start from the bottom with that, too.

His fresh start also included regaining his confidence, something that's oozed from Newman during his past seven games as he's jumped from averaging 12 points to 22 per game, including scoring an NCAA-high 87 points in this year's tournament.

Newman got off to a rocky start last fall, focused too much on playing mistake-free basketball and not being intense on offense or locking down on the other end of the floor.

"Coach Self was hard on Malik and had a right to be," Webster said. "He wasn't playing great defense."

His signature step-back 3-pointer hadn't been tested in game action in two years. The guard appeared gun-shy at a point when Kansas was struggling to score points and needed him most.

This season, which Newman refers to as a "roller-coaster ride," provided Sanders a chance to drive home a lesson.

In high school, if Newman wasn't shooting the ball, chances are Callaway wasn't going to win the game. When it was necessary for him to score upward of 30 or 40 points a game, Newman came through. Part of the reason why Sanders scheduled such tough competition like Huntington Prep and other elite prep schools was to force Newman to put on a show on the biggest stages.

That same type of challenge, Sanders told his former player, was right in front of him.

"I told him, 'Malik, if you're going to be sitting down, be sitting down because you're doing what you know well, whether it's working or not,'" Sanders recalled. "'Don't be sitting down because you're second-guessing yourself [on a shot] and now you miss a block-out assignment. At least take the shot and when you miss a block-out assignment you know I took it, I just didn't make it.'"

Newman heeded that advice, and it has paid off.

Since the Big 12 tournament, the redshirt sophomore has been shooting 54 percent from the field and 55 percent from 3-point range. He upped the ante on defense, too, stepping up his rebounding to 5.1 boards on average in each of the Jayhawks' past seven games.

That look in his eyes -- the one many on the Mississippi high school basketball scene grew accustomed to -- is back, too.

'I got this'

A day before Kansas took on Duke in the Elite Eight, Webster was a nervous wreck. "Big Train," as he was dubbed from his own playing days at Mississippi State, had been grinding the tape and he was stressed.

"I'm panicked," Webster said. "I told Malik the game's at 4 o'clock, everybody's out of church, the whole world's going to be watching."

Webster watched recent game film of Duke, not knowing whether his son would be guarding Grayson Allen, but just in case, he had the game plan all figured out. Allen pump fakes nearly every time before he shoots, Webster told his son. Watch out when the Blue Devils go zone. Duke likes to stretch it out, etc.

Before Webster could get another word in, Newman cut his dad off with some advice of his own.

"Dad, I got this," Newman said. "I promise you, Dad, I got this."

That's a phrase Webster has become accustomed to hearing from his son in recent years. Newman's safety net no longer within driving distance to swoop in whenever he needed to catch his breath from what he was going through at Mississippi State, Webster has had to trust that his son can work through whatever issues he faces, not only in basketball, but in the process of growing up.

"Every time he got off the phone with me, his thing was, 'Dad, I'm going to be OK,''' Webster said. Even when he was scoring zero points, one point, he always ended the conversation with, 'Dad, I'm going to be OK.'"

Before every game, Newman scopes out where his father and family are seated. During the game, the two often make eye contact, something that has been a source of comfort for both sides ever since Newman began playing organized basketball.

"He wants to be Bob Knight in the stands, so he tries to tell me how to guard a person," Newman said with a laugh.

When they made eye contact before the second half started Saturday and Webster shot his son a peeved look of urgency, the redshirt sophomore guard calmly raised his hand.

"I was like, 'Dad, just chill,'" Newman said. "'It's going to be good. I got this.'"

Boy, did he ever. And dad's scouting report paid off.

Not only did Newman showcase a "Malik Classic" in which he took over the game at the most critical moment with clutch shooting and his ability to bury corner 3s, he effectively took Allen out of the game, holding the Duke star to 3-of-13 shooting.

"He played the greatest defense I'd ever seen from him," Webster said. "I don't give a damn if he didn't score a point because everybody knows he can score. That defense -- that's a movie we'd never seen before."

Dubbed "Mr. March" by teammate Devonte Graham, Newman is coming alive at a time when the spotlight is zeroed in on what's next: A return to college or a jump to the NBA.

The path in getting to this weekend wasn't one Newman ever expected to take. After things came so easily at other points in his basketball career, the rash of obstacles all at once diverted him from his one-and-done path, which may have been the best thing for him.

"I think now: Had he been a one-and-done, I don't know how long his career would have lasted," Webster said. "At first Malik hadn't been through nothing. Everything he touched turned to gold, but now you have somebody who has been through these ups and downs. He didn't break, fold; he stood there, and he's stronger for it."

And he certainly has his swagger back. As the nation zeroes in on the four remaining teams vying for the national championship beginning Saturday, Newman hopes to pick up where he left off in the regional round -- introducing those who don't know and reintroducing himself to those who forgot what The Machine is all about.

"I feel like that high school kid again," Newman said. "I'm having fun, I'm enjoying myself and I have a free mind. I feel like I'm living in a fairytale."