Iowa State’s Georges Niang carries extra motivation – and less weight – into 2014-15

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LAS VEGAS — The 2013-14 season was a very good one for the Iowa State Cyclones. Fred Hoiberg’s program won 28 games, winning its first Big 12 tournament title since 2000 and reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time since that same season. With the triumvirate of guard DeAndre Kane and forwards Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang leading the way Iowa State was one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, ranking sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

But for as promising as Iowa State’s NCAA tournament prospects seemed to be entering the 68-team event, one awkward step late in their comfortable Round of 64 win over North Carolina Central changed the equation.

Niang broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, and while Iowa State outlasted North Carolina thanks in large part to Kane’s near triple double and game-winning basket with 1.6 seconds remaining, things weren’t the same for the Cyclones. In the following round eventual national champion UConn was able to neutralize Ejim and make things difficult on Kane, resulting in an 81-76 loss for Iowa State despite a career-high 34 points from Dustin Hogue.

Even with the individual achievements, as he was a third team All-Big 12 selection, and the team’s successful campaign the ending to the 2013-14 season left Niang with a feeling of frustration.

“I try not to think about it a lot,” Niang said at the LeBron James Skills Academy when asked about the way in which last season ended. “It was real frustrating. Whenever you have to just sit there and watch and know that you really can’t do anything; it’s not your choice.

“I try to take the positive out of everything. I felt that at that point in my career I was taking things for granted. I took basketball for granted, and I wouldn’t be as apt to work out as much. After breaking my foot I [understood] that this can be taken away in the blink of an eye, so you need to put your [best] foot forward and make the best of this situation. I feel like now I love the game; I found a newfound love for the game and I’ll just keep working on my craft and getting better.”

The offseason has been about getting healthier and expanding his skill set for Niang, who estimated in Las Vegas that it took about ten weeks for him to get back to full strength. Since the end of the season Niang, who played between 250 and 255 pounds last season, has lost some 25 pounds and in the short time he’s had on the court the differences in his game have been noticeable. One goal of Niang’s at the camp was to become a more versatile offensive player while also improving his ability to defend smaller players.

“Being able to guard smaller guys and keep them in front of me, I noticed I couldn’t do that last year when I was heavier,” Niang noted when discussing the impact his weight loss has had on his game. “Getting up and down the court is easier. I rarely feel tired now, so I feel that with my stamina I can keep on going and keep pushing guys to a higher level.”

The question to be asked now is how that will fit into what the Cyclones will look to do in 2014-15 now that Ejim (Big 12 Player of the Year) and Kane (Big 12 Newcomer of the Year) are out of eligibility. They were also two of Iowa State’s three best rebounders, with Hogue averaging 8.4 rebounds per contest. The rebounding is just one area in which Ejim and Kane were impactful players for the Cyclones last season, and given their production those two aren’t players you simply plug in a replacement for. To properly address those two key personnel losses all hands will need to be on deck, with Niang leading the way.

“I feel like I’m going to have to be a better leader,” Niang said. “I know DeAndre handled a lot of those reins and so did Melvin. I feel like I was a leader but with those two gone I need to step up and show these guys that this is the way we do things around here and this is how we’re going to win games. I think improving my leadership and getting my teammates involved [will be key]. We have great spacing and we have a lot of shooters, so we’re in a good situation every game.”

Another factor in Iowa State’s success under Hoiberg has been the ability to integrate transfers into the program, and that will be no different in 2014-15. Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader (13.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg in 2012-13) and former Marquette signee Jameel McKay (he won’t be eligible to play until Iowa State’s game against Drake on December 20) were both part of the program last season, and guard Bryce Dejean-Jones arrives as a graduate transfer from UNLV, and each will have a role to play as the Cyclones look to account for what Ejim and Kane provided.

And while skeptics may prefer to judge those additions solely on what may have occurred at their last stops, such an approach has proven to be lazy when it comes to gauging the potential impact of transfers at Iowa State under Hoiberg.

So where does Iowa State fit into the Big 12 race next season? Kansas will be pegged as the favorites by many due to the fact that they’ve won at least a share of the last ten regular season titles, and programs such as Texas and Oklahoma are very optimistic about their chances as well. Iowa State shouldn’t be overlooked, and doing so will only provide Niang and his teammates with an extra bit of motivation as they prepare to build on last season’s success.

“There’s no difference between this and any other year,” Niang said. “We lose guys and [people] say we’re not going to be as good but we keep coming back. It’s just going to be a process of us just keep coming back and throwing the first punch and saying that we’re here to stay.

“I feel like I’ve been a winner everywhere I go, and I play with a chip on my shoulder. Niang continued. “So for [people] to say ‘we’re not sure how good you’re going to be’ or not give us as much pub as Texas or Kansas is fine by me. Because when it comes down to it, who’s winning at the end of the day [is what matters].”

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s touching tribute to his mother will melt your heart

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Frank Martin advanced to the Final Four for the first time in his career on Sunday afternoon, and the South Carolina head coach — who has blazed an unlikely trail to the pinnacle of the college basketball world — thanked the most important person to his success in the most beautiful way imaginable afterwards.

VIDEO: Luke Maye gets standing ovation in class after game-winning shot

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You want to talk dedication to ones studies?

How about this: Luke Maye, just 13 hours after hitting a game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite 8, got a standing ovation in his Business 101 class at 8 a.m. on Monday morning.

Check out the video:

Luke, you’re a celebrity now. Going to an 8 a.m. class after your weekend heroics is iffy at best, but if you’re going to do it, we need you to start dressing a little better than this.

VIDEO: De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo inconsolable after Elite 8 loss

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Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox, the two freshmen on Kentucky’s roster that aren’t Malik Monk, were sitting next to each other in the locker room following Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina on Sunday night, and the Wildcat stars were inconsolable.

As weird as this may sound, and as tough as that video is to watch at times, I love it. The problem with one-and-done kids is that it, at times, feels like they’re mercenaries, that they are players that are strictly in college because they have to be, because they can’t make millions in the NBA yet.

Fox and Adebayo certainly do fall into that category, but it doesn’t come with the typical shortcomings.

They clearly care about their school, about their teammates and about that loss.

I’ve grown cynical, I guess, and while I’ll readily admit that video was too tough for me to watch in its entirety, it is refreshing to see just how much they care.

Even if they are only making a seven month stop over in Lexington.

VIDEO: Kentucky, UNC fans react to insane finish to Elite 8 game

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The finish last night between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky was one of the greatest and most exhilarating endings to a basketball that we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament.

It was capped by Luke Maye answering Malik Monk’s jumper with a jumper of his own, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the second straight season.

That’s a roller coaster of emotions to go through in 10 seconds, and perhaps no one embodies that more than the dude in the No. 11 jersey here:

(Does anyone know him? Can we confirm he’s OK?)

Anyway, that emotion was nothing compared to what the Kentucky team went through. De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo were inconsolable in the locker room after the game:

North Carolina fans, however, were just a little bit happier:

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”