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Georges Niang

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].”

Stanford guard Anthony Brown looks to take another step forward in 2014-15

Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown
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source: AP
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LAS VEGAS — Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, one of the questions to be asked of the Stanford Cardinal was what they could expect from 6-foot-7 guard Anthony Brown. After putting together two solid seasons, the Los Angeles native played in just four games in 2012-13, missing the majority of the season due to a hip injury that required surgery. Would Brown be the player who averaged 8.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore? Or could he possibly give Johnny Dawkins even more in a season billed as an important one for a head coach who had yet to lead the Cardinal to the NCAA tournament.

Not only did Brown meet those numbers, he exceeded them, accounting 12.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, as he also developed into one of the Pac-12’s best shooters. Brown, who hovered around the “180” mark (50 percent or better from the field, 40 percent or better from three and 90 percent of better from the foul line) for most of the season, finished the 2013-14 campaign shooting 47.5% from the field, 45.3% from three and 78.5% from the foul line with all three marks representing career bests.

Brown began the season well, reaching double figures in each of Stanford’s first nine games, and by the end of the year he was the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player as the Cardinal had earned its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2008.

“[Confidence] was the big thing,” Brown told NBCSports.com at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “I started off the season hot. Going into last year I was coming back [from the injury] and my main focus was to come in and be a shooter, space the floor for my teammates. We had great big guys last year, and that’s something I pride myself on. Once things got rolling, I just used [my shooting ability] as a weapon.”

While it was frustrating to be unable to play, Brown was able to pick up some valuable lessons during the 2012-13 season. As a result the game slowed down for him, as Brown picked up on the subtleties of the game while sidelined. That wasn’t the case for Brown during his first two seasons, and not only did that help with Brown’s individual skill set, but it also helped with his understanding of his teammates’ games.

Another change that impacted Brown last season was the loss of Aaron Bright, who played in seven games before missing the remainder of the season due to a dislocated right shoulder. It had already been decided by Coach Dawkins that Chasson Randle, who finished the season as a first team All Pac-12 selection, would handle the primary ball-handler responsibilities. But the loss of Bright meant even more opportunities for Brown to operate with the basketball in his hands, serving as a secondary option, capable of creating for himself as well as his teammates (a career-best 2.0 assists per game).

The next task for Brown and his teammates is to account for the loss of forwards Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell, with the former being a member of the Pac-12 All-Defensive team and the latter being a first team all-conference selection. The Cardinal won’t lack for experience, but those are two important personnel losses to address in the coming months.

“It has to be a team effort,” Brown noted when discussing how Stanford will account for the loss of those two starters. “Dwight and Josh probably pulled down close to 15 rebounds per game and both could block shots (Huestis averaged 1.9 bpg), so it has to be a team effort. And we have to bring the freshmen along as quickly as possible.

“Me and Chasson have to get in there a little bit more; we’ll probably have to pressure the ball a little bit more and not get guys get behind us,” Brown continued. “And we have to gang rebound. Last year we relied on, ‘Josh go get that [rebound], Dwight go get that’. This year all five of us have to rebound.”

The Pac-12 race will be an interesting one, because while there’s a team considered to be the prohibitive favorite in Arizona there are a lot of questions to be answered with no clear-cut challenger to the defending regular season champions. Stanford fashions itself as one of the possible options, and the progression of their freshmen will be something to consider.

Of the four arriving on campus two, Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis, are talented front court options, who will look to compete for minutes alongside returning starter Stefan Nastic. If Humphrey and Travis prove capable of contributing immediately, Stanford could have the front court help it needs to go along with its productive perimeter options. And that would place Brown and his teammates right in the mix amongst the many teams looking to contend in 2014-15.

“Our goal is to win the Pac-12,” Brown stated. “We want to be in that hunt. If we’re in the top two or three, we’re giving ourselves a chance [to win the conference].”

Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield confident Sooners can once again exceed expectations

Buddy Hield
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LAS VEGAS — Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, the Oklahoma Sooners were expected to be a team firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack in the Big 12. While head coach Lon Kruger did return key players such as Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield from a group that won 20 games and reached the NCAA tournament in 2012-13, the fact of the matter was that the Sooners had to account for the loss of their top three scorers from that team. Whether or not the Sooners would meet or exceed those preseason expectations depended upon what their returnees were able to do, and even with their NCAA tournament loss to North Dakota State, 2013-14 represented a successful season for the Sooners.

Oklahoma finished the season with a 23-10 overall record, going 12-6 in Big 12 play to finish in sole possession of second place. And after losing three double-digit scorers at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Sooners finished the year with four players averaging at least 10.3 points per game. Leading the way was Hield, who emerged as one of the nation’s most improved players and earned second team All-Big 12 honors.

Hield averaged a team-best 16.5 points to go along with 4.4 rebounds per contest, shooting 44.5% from the field and 38.6% from beyond the arc. With his ability to find looks anywhere on the court, Hield developed into not only a better shot-maker but a more efficient offensive threat as well in 2013-14.

“My expectations [last year] were to be more aggressive and be a better scorer for my team, especially with Ro [Romero Osby] and the other seniors gone,” Hield said at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “I had to pick up the slack and I’m a guy who’s capable of doing that. I spent a lot of time in the gym working on my game [last summer].

“Nobody thought we were going to be as good as we were but we had a lot of confidence, and Coach Kruger did a really good job of getting us ready for games and making sure we stuck to our game plan.”

With Osby and Amath M’Baye gone, Oklahoma wasn’t going to be the interior-dominant team it was in 2012-13. As a result they were a more perimeter-oriented group in 2013-14, with Isaiah Cousins (11.0 ppg) and Jordan Woodard (10.6 ppg) joining Hield as guards scoring in double figures and Clark being an effective scorer in the mid-range area while also making 43.5% of his shots from beyond the arc.

One season after ranking ninth in the Big 12 in three-point field goal point percentage, scoring just over 21 percent of their points from beyond the arc (per statsheet.com), the Sooners scored a league-best 31.6% of its points from three. Personnel changes forced Oklahoma to adapt, and Kruger’s Sooners proved themselves to be capable of doing so. Now with Clark having graduated, Oklahoma will once again have to adapt, and it’s something Hield and his teammates are working hard to do this summer.

“He gave us leadership and scoring. He was our ‘four-man’,” Hield said. “He was the one who exploited mismatches and made things happen for us. He was our leader.”

Also pushing Oklahoma is the feeling of disappointment felt in the aftermath of its overtime loss to North Dakota State, something that’s affecting not only the returnees but the incoming freshmen as well according to Hield.

“Everybody’s been working hard in the gym, even the freshmen,” Hield noted. “They see the older guys, the determination and the chip on our shoulders, and we just get after it. I still think about [the North Dakota State loss]. Every time someone talks about it, it just makes me sick.”

Those newcomers will be important for Oklahoma, especially considering their lack of interior depth last season and the fact that Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas will most likely have to sit out the 2014-15 season per NCAA transfer rules. Ryan Spangler, who battled night in and night out against the best big men in the Big 12, will have help in the form of freshmen Dante Buford, Khadeem Lattin and Jamuni McNease. With the opportunity to earn playing time being there for those additions, the hope for Oklahoma is that interior depth won’t be as much of an issue this time around.

Those front court additions and Oklahoma’s depth and experience on the perimeter will lead to expectations higher than the ones held for the Sooners prior to last season. And while Kansas has won at least a share of the last 10 Big 12 regular season titles, multiple teams entered the summer confident in their chances of winning the conference this winter. And that includes Oklahoma, with its confident junior shooting guard looking forward to taking on the challenge of making a run at a conference title.

“We’re going to win the Big 12. I’m saying it now, we’re going to win the Big 12,” Hield said last week, with his words grabbing the attention of another Big 12 representative at the camp. “I have confidence in my team and the guys coming back. Ryan, Isaiah, Jordan … we have a good, veteran team coming back and I feel that we’re going to take it to the next level.”