Coming into Friday night's game, the mantra around Iowa State's locker room was to simply, survive and advance. With a 93-75 victory over 14th-seeded North Carolina Central, the Cyclones most certainly advanced, but unfortunately, not all survived.
Within minutes of the final buzzer sounding and amidst a blur and roar of victory beers and shots, news started to trickle in via Twitter that an injury that caused Georges Niang to head to the locker room appeared to be more severe than originally thought.
Niang knew right away that something was wrong and could be seen waving to the sidelines that he needed to come out of the game. Moments later, Niang was hobbling to the locker room under his own power, so it appeared as if it was just a minor ankle tweak or something of the sort. A deflating blow was dealt to the entirety of Cyclone nation within the hour, however, as it discovered that Niang had broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.
We'll talk more about Niang's injury, but first, let's look back at yet another stellar second half performance by Iowa State.
- North Carolina Central proved to be just as pesky as their reputation suggested and in the opening 20 minutes, Iowa State struggled to control the game and put distance between themselves and the Eagles. Up 38-30, it appeared as if Iowa State was finally gaining the needed momentum, but a 9-2 run by North Carolina Central put them right back in the game and down only one point going into the final two minutes of the half. Iowa State managed to rip off five straight points though, including a ridiculous put-back dunk by Dustin Hogue to give the Cyclones a six-point edge at the break. That was all Iowa State needed to get things rolling and quickly extended the lead to double digits in the opening minutes of the second stanza, which Iowa State maintained until the end.
- Offensively, this team continues to play brilliantly and you could argue that there's not a team in the country who's playing as efficiently as Iowa State is currently. The Cyclones scored at least 90 points for the third time in their last four games and shot 63.6% from the field in Friday's win. That hot shooting included 48 points in the paint to NCC's 32 and was also bolstered by a 9-17 effort from beyond the arc. As a team, the Cyclones also shot 14-16 from the line and dished out 21 assists while only turning it over 9 times. Iowa State was also +10 on the glass, leading to a 14-8 edge in second-chance points.
- Continuing the team concept, five Cyclones scored in double figures, led by Niang's 24 points. Prior to exiting the game, Niang also grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 4 assists. Niang knocked down 4-5 threes as well. Just an outstanding effort out of the sophomore. Melvin Ejim had 17 points and 8 rebounds and his battering ram of a teammate, Dustin Hogue, continued to play at a high level, scoring 15 points and grabbing 5 rebounds. DeAndre Kane was his usual self, scoring 14 points, pulling down 7 rebounds and handing out 5 assists. I wouldn't necessarily call this his breakout performance because he's been playing well for some time, but Monte Morris showed what type of scoring ability he possesses, dropping in 15 points. Naz Long and Matt Thomas also got into the scoring ledger with 5 and 3 points, respectively.
- Iowa State didn't exactly shut down Jeremy Ingram, who finished with 28 points, but the Cyclones did just enough keep the rest of the Eagles at bay. This wasn't an overall defensive performance for the ages, but it was good enough and when Iowa State is humming like they are offensively, you can't really nitpick too much, especially with an 18-point margin of victory.
Iowa State will play North Carolina on Sunday afternoon at 4:15 CST in the round of 32. The 6th-seeded Tar Heels were on life support with just over a minute to play against Providence, but despite being down five, Roy Williams' crew managed to rally for a victory over the Friars.
North Carolina is a talented team with excellent length and athleticism and without Niang in the line up, the Cyclones will have to play super small-ball and hope to make due. Naz Long will likely take Niang's spot in the starting line up and Daniel Edozie figures to be the primary benefactor inside and will likely be called on to play 10-15 minutes in Niang's absence.
The biggest concern with Niang out, aside from the size mismatch is just how much this impacts what Iowa State is able to do offensively. Kane and Morris may do the bulk of the ball handling, but in the half court, a healthy chunk of the Cyclones' offense goes through Niang. Fred Hoiberg has shown repeatedly that he can identify mismatches and is a skilled tactician when it comes to picking apart the opposition, so my guess is that he's going to put Kane in Niang's role offensively, setting ball screens, posting up and running isos from the wing.
Defensively, I think we'll see a lot of defense-for-offense substitutions throughout the game with Edozie checking in for brief stints to add some size when North Carolina has the ball. Above all else, though, stopping Marcus Paige is priority number one. The Iowa-native has had an outstanding sophomore season and is the catalyst to Roy Williams' attack. Paige is the only true outside shooting threat on this team and he doesn't need much space to operate. Kane, Morris and Long will all spend time chasing Paige around the perimeter.
Inside, the Tar Heels rely on the trio of James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks to create havoc. All three rebound very well and give North Carolina an NBA caliber (size wise) front line. Luckily, Iowa State has seen similar size this year in match ups with Texas, Kansas and Baylor. North Carolina will also use Leslie McDonald and J.P. Tokoto on the perimeter and both are long, capable defenders.
This is the first time that Iowa State and North Carolina have met since the round of 32 in the 2005 NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels were dominant that day and went on to win the national championship. Iowa State also ran into North Carolina in the 1995 tournament and came out on the losing end, which is notable as it was the last game of Fred Hoiberg's college career.
Despite the loss of Niang, Iowa State is still good enough to beat the Tar Heels, but it's going to take a total team effort and more specifically, a well executed and thinking man's effort. That means that Ejim and Hogue have to avoid foul trouble, all five Cyclones will have to step up on the glass and offensively, someone is going to have to account for Niang's 17 points and adept passing.
When I first heard the news last night, like many of you, I was crushed. I went silent for about an hour and couldn't stop shaking my head in frustration. Waking up on Saturday morning and looking at this match up, however, I think my reaction may have been a little premature and overly dramatic.
Iowa State can not only win this game, but they can do so comfortably. I pointed out just how masterful Iowa State has been over its last four games and while Niang has been a large part of that, the loss of Niang doesn't exactly leave the cupboard bare here.
I think back to these last five wins and recall Melvin Ejim fouling out on senior day against Oklahoma State and then later Georges Niang in over time. The Cyclones stepped and prevailed. Or how about when DeAndre Kane fouled out with just under four minutes left against Kansas State? The Cyclones stepped and up prevalied. Against Kansas, with Iowa State clinging to a lead in the final minutes, Niang took a charge and came up bloody, having to miss the rest of the game. The Cyclones stepped up and prevailed.
This team has shown us throughout the year that they are capable of winning and steadying the ship when its best players are sidelined. The only difference is now they'll have to do it over the course of 40 minutes. I think this team can and will do it.
Iowa State 84 - North Carolina 80
Tip: 4:15 PM CST - AT&T Center - San Antonio, Texas
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network (great news, Eric Heft avoided an arrest, despite the fact that he drunkenly broke into the Alamo last night and could be heard yelling, "I'M DAVY CROCKETT!")
North Carolina SBN Blog: Tar Heel Blog