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].”

Roach scores 20 as Texas beats No. 8 Texas Tech 67-58

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AUSTIN, Texas — Kerwin Roach II scored 20 points in a surprise return to the lineup and Texas got another home win over a Top 25 opponent in a week, beating No. 8 Texas Tech 67-58 Wednesday night.

Roach, who had missed the previous two games with a fracture in his left, non-shooting hand, was expected to miss a few more. But he suited up for pregame warmups and was cleared to play right before tipoff.

Roach gave the Longhorns a new threat both inside and out with his 3-point shooting and aggressive drives to the basket. The Longhorns — who beat then-No. 16 TCU 99-98 in double-overtime last Wednesday — also played their best defense in weeks, anchored by freshman center Mo Bamba under the basket. Bamba had 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.

Texas (12-6, 2/3 Big 12) led by 13 early in the second half before the Red Raiders rallied to get within four. But the Longhorns got two big 3-pointers by Eric Davis, Jr., including one with 3:28 left that pushed the lead back to 10.

Jarrett Culver scored 16 points to lead Texas Tech (15-3, 4-2).

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are having their best season in years and second-year coach Chris Beard has the program contending for the Big 12 title. But they missed a chance to pick up an important road win and dropped their 22nd consecutive game in Austin. The Red Raiders haven’t beaten Texas in Austin since 1996, when both programs were in the old Southwest Conference.

Texas: The Longhorns will get a shot of confidence in an inconsistent season with another big win. Most of all the Longhorns showed they can protect a big lead, even if just barely. Texas let a double-digit second half lead get away in a crushing road loss at Oklahoma State last week.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech plays at Iowa State

Texas plays at No. 6 West Virginia

SMU lands massive résumé win at No. 7 Wichita State

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It’s too strong to say that SMU saved their season on Wednesday night.

The Mustangs already own a neutral court win over No. 14 Arizona. They also knocked off USC, Boise State and UCF, all of which will be varying degrees of “good win” come Selection Sunday. That loss to Northern Iowa doesn’t look good today, and it’s hard to imagine losses to Tulane and Temple – the latter of which came at home – are going to age gracefully, but in a year where it seems like everyone is mediocre at best, a marquee win combined with a stable of solid résumé wins could end up being enough.

That said, on Wednesday, SMU sure went a long way towards making sure they won’t have to sweat out the bracket reveal, as the Mustangs went into Koch Arena and knocked off No. 7 Wichita State, 83-78. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for SMU.

The star of the show was Shake Milton. A player that has had NBA hype for what seems like the better part of a decade, Milton had a career-high 33 points on Wednesday night, the best game of his career in what has been a breakout junior season. He did it on 11-for-14 shooting, making 5-for-6 from three and outdueling fellow NBA Draft prospect Landry Shamet, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists.

SMU now has two elite wins to pin at the top of the tournament profile – both of which came away from home – and it affords them a bit of breathing room as they matriculate through American play.

This win isn’t just a big deal for SMU.

It matters for the American has a whole as well.

Heading into today, it looked like the conference was trending towards getting just two bids to the Big Dance – Wichita State and Cincinnati – and that, in turn, created a problem for everyone else in the conference. If there are only two good teams in the league then there are only two teams that American bubble dwellers can beat and improve their résumé. We won’t know how much this affects SMU’s computer numbers until they update, but it is safe to assume that a win over a team that is top 20 in both the RPI and KenPom will help significantly. Entering Tuesday, SMU was rated 83rd in the RPI.

Assuming that Jarrey Foster’s knee sprain doesn’t turn out to be serious – he left the game after six minutes and did not return – than this day could not have possibly gone better for the Mustangs.

On the other hand, it does raise some questions about this Wichita State team.

Specifically defensively.

As we noted earlier today, Wichita’s defense hasn’t exactly been great this season. They entered today ranked outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and the return of Markis McDuffie, who has yet to return to the starting lineup, has not exactly helped matters.

But it really came to a head on Wednesday night. SMU scored 83 points on 60 possessions, or 1.383 points-per-possession, which is the worst ass-kicking that the Shockers have received under Gregg Marshall, who has been employed by the school for a decade. The only time anyone came close to that involved Doug McDermott going for 41 points and shooting 15-for-18 from the floor.

And that game came on the road.

I wrote a column earlier this season wondering whether or not we could start discussing Wichita State as potentially the best team in the country. That column was predicated on the idea that the Shockers were going to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

Because they always are.

During this six-year run of consecutive NCAA tournaments, the Shockers have never finished lower than 26th in defensive efficiency. The last four years they’ve finished in the top 15, and that is despite playing in the Missouri Valley. (KenPom adjusts his efficiency numbers for opponent strength.)

Wichita State was 26th entering today.

They’re now 55th.

Only two teams have ever reached a national title game with a lower defensive efficiency.

This is a problem that badly needs fixing, but if McDuffie wasn’t the answer, is there one?

Texas Tech honors Andrew Jones before game against Texas

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Texas Tech became the latest team to show support towards Texas sophomore Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia last week.

The Red Raiders are facing the Longhorns on Wednesday as they wore shooting shirts with Jones’ No. 1 and name on the back, joining Oklahoma State as recent opponents to show support.

So far, over $104,000 has been raised in just over five days for the Andrew Jones and Family Support Fund, which has been started by the University of Texas to help the family pay for medical expenses.

No. 1 Villanova leads by 44, beats Ewing, Georgetown 88-56

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WASHINGTON — Top-ranked Villanova led by as many as 44 points — 44! — and gave Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing a rude welcome back to the schools’ rivalry, handing the Hoyas their worst loss in more than 40 years, 88-56 on Wednesday night.

Jalen Brunson led the way with 18 points and seven assists for Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East), which finished 17 for 33 on 3s, while Georgetown went 4 for 15.

Mikal Bridges scored 17 for the Wildcats, winners of seven consecutive games against the Hoyas, Villanova’s longest streak in a series that dates to 1922.

The last time Ewing faced Villanova in any capacity was in the last game of his college playing career at Georgetown, a surprising 66-64 victory for the underdog Wildcats in the 1985 NCAA championship game. It was quite clear, quite quickly, on Wednesday that there would be no such tight outcome —nor any chance of an upset by Georgetown (12-6, 2-5).

This is Ewing’s first season as a head coach at any level, and he opted to go with an easy-as-can-be non-conference schedule to try to build his players’ confidence. Now that league play is underway, especially against a foe like Villanova, the gap between the Hoyas and the best teams is obvious.

It was 42-20 at halftime, and Georgetown to that point had more turnovers (nine) than made baskets, shooting 8 for 26, including 0 for 8 on 3s.

Villanova just kept pushing the margin after the break, going up by 30, then 40, and then reaching the apex at 88-44 on a layup by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree with about 3½ minutes remaining. Less than a minute later, Villanova coach Jay Wright finally sent on the subs and pulled any remaining starters.

INJURED AND ILL

Villanova: Reserves Tim Delaney and Jermaine Samuels sat out with a virus.

Georgetown: Backup PG Trey Dickerson left in the first half with a back spasm and did not return.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: Since its only loss, 101-93 at Butler on Dec. 30, Villanova has won four games in a row, propelled by an efficient offense that gets a lot of its work done from beyond the arc.

Georgetown: This was the Hoyas’ largest margin of defeat since a 33-point loss to Maryland, 104-71, on Dec. 10, 1974.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Travels to UConn on Saturday in a matchup between former Big East rivals and the Wildcats’ first game at Hartford in five years. Villanova is 12-0 in non-conference games heading into the last one on their schedule.

Georgetown: Hosts St. John’s on Saturday, the teams’ second meeting in less than two weeks. The Hoyas won 69-66 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9

NCAA pushes up college hoops start date as Champions Classic will open the season

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The NCAA is pushing up the start of the college basketball regular season to begin on the Tuesday before the second Friday in November.

That means the Champions Classic will open the college basketball season in 2018-19 as announced in an official release on Wednesday. So now, we get Duke vs. Kentucky and Michigan State vs. Kansas in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to open the college basketball regular season?

Yes, please.

This is a very smart move for the NCAA as men’s and women’s basketball can now open the regular season a bit earlier. The made-for-TV, neutral-court spectacle of the Champions Classic is also the perfect programming to get casual sports fans to tune in for the opening night of college basketball.

There will also be a new level of intrigue for the Champions Classic with all four superpowers making their season debuts in the event next season. Instead of getting a regular-season tune-up to begin to campaign, all of these teams will get thrown straight into the fire.

Hopefully, the sport can continue to make moves like this to generate casual interest and develop more intriguing non-conference possibilities. College basketball’s regular season has suffered from too many lulls in the past. At least now the regular season will start with a bang.