Georges Niang

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

Leave a comment
AP Photo

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].”

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Leave a comment

Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Leave a comment

Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.