In the late spring of 2011, Iowa State signed a versatile power forward with a big ass named Georges Niang.
He used to play with the top overall recruit that year, Nerlens Noel. He spelled his first name with a silent "s". His last name had three different pronunciations.
At the very least, it was an intriguing story and kind of a hilarious synopsis of Fred Hoiberg's first prep school commitment in the class of 2012.
You looked at Niang's offers and saw the improbability of this particular ESPN Top 100 recruit signing with a program like Iowa State, which had just wrapped up a 16-16 campaign under a first year head coach, losing 14 of its final 17 games, and would proceed to graduate three starters.
Going down the list, you had Fran McCaffery's old team. Hell, you had Fran McCaffery's new team which, let's be honest, makes this story even better. You had home state schools in Massachusetts and Northeastern, a familiar name in Keno Davis (who would actually be fired by Providence two weeks before Niang's first visit to Ames) and a slew of smaller east coast schools that probably could have used the oft touted versatility of a combo forward like Niang.
But he chose Iowa State, against anyone's better judgment at the time, and it didn't take long for Fred Hoiberg to trumpet this chubby kid from northern Massachusetts as the catalyst that would transform Iowa State basketball for the better.
Both Iowa State and Iowa were in rebuilding phases in the 2011 offseason, and "rebuild," in all its forms, is a pretty scary word for most prep recruits who have their sights set on a long, thriving college basketball career. In an era of one-and-dones, whether or not that ever applied to Georges Niang (it didn't), winning now is paramount.
But it didn't scare him off.
"It makes me want to do it more when they tell you, ‘We want you to help bring us back,'" Niang told the media after his March 2011 Tour de Cy-Hawk. "Any kid would be intrigued by hearing that; that you're going to be the guy to help them get back to the promised land."
And shit, Georges, you went on and did it.
The "promised land" is always relative in sports. It depends on who you are and what your reputation is. But more importantly, it kind of depends on who you once were. Iowa State basketball was barely a blip on the map five years ago. Hilton Magic was still a Johnny Orr thing. The Big 12 Tournament? You only needed a single change of clothes for that.
The NCAA Tournament? Keep dreaming.
And let's not overstate things here: Iowa State hasn't hung any NCAA national championship banners since 2012 (yet). Hell, the Cyclones were 0-for-4 during the Niang era in slamming the brakes on Kansas' regular season title run.
They made it past the Round of 32 just once... and they did it without Niang.
But we still have him to thank. If not for helping Iowa State basketball rise from the ashes - the end game that Hoiberg had in mind all along, that sneaky bastard - then at least for the memories he gave us along the way.
Let's start in 2013.
I don't know if you know this, but Ken Pomeroy (who I swear fathered me - need to talk to Mom about this) has awarded "MVPs" for every single college basketball game since the start of the 2013 season. Know who Iowa State's MVP was in the first two games of Georges Niang's career?
He logged a fucking double-double (15 and 12) in his first 28 minutes in an Iowa State uniform.
In reserve, spelling Percy Gibson in 12 of his first 13 outings of the season, Niang logged 126 points in 263 minutes, which would eventually win him a starting job entering Big 12 play at Kansas. That's a big stage for most freshmen. The lights shine a little brighter and a little hotter in Allen Fieldhouse.
In response, Niang laced up his shoes, spotted up for three in front of Jeff Withey, drained it, and never looked back.
To this very day, it gives me goose bumps thinking about that shot. You wonder what was going through Niang's mind in that moment - the moment he took the floor as a freshman starter, at the Phog, pulled up and hushed one of the most raucous crowds in college basketball.
And it's probably foolish to take one shot as a sign of things to come, but maybe we should have.
I'm not a father, but I imagine it's sort of like when you realize your kid is really, really good at something. Like reciting the alphabet backwards or stacking cups or something kind of stupid and impractical, but then you're like, "Shit, I think we're onto something here."
Except this wasn't impractical at all - and we really were onto to something.
Because there eventually came a time over the course of Niang's career when you didn't want the ball in anyone else's hands. You didn't want anyone else in the thick of things in a big moment. Niang would go onto hit a game-winner in Iowa State's first ever conference game against West Virginia one week later.
He took the #BLARGE, which, if you listen closely, God is still apologizing for.
He took a career-high 19 points in a Big 12 Tournament semifinal against Kansas and matched it in his first ever NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame.
Two days later, he stood in a pool of his own tears shouldering the blame for an Aaron Craft 3-pointer that perhaps a more aptly outstretched arm would have altered enough to send Iowa State to its first Sweet Sixteen in 12 years.
But you live and you learn. You come back stronger.
By the time 2014 rolled around, Aaron Craft was a distant memory (FOR SOME OF US), and every talking hairpiece on every television set in America would wax about underappreciated sophomore Georges Niang - one of the biggest "matchup nightmares" in all of college basketball. It was a moniker he never relinquished, and eventually you started to memorize his scouting report.
Versatile point forward... YMCA game... Not terribly athletic...
It honestly read like a haunting infomercial that you've heard one too many times. But despite Niang being one of college basketball's worst kept secrets, he became indefensible.
Good for about 15-5-5 almost every night in 2014, Niang, along with DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and Dustin Hogue, led Iowa State through a roller coaster campaign that featured the best start in program history (14-0), followed by four losses in 18 days, a triple overtime thriller in Stillwater, the Morgantown Massacre, the immaculate conception of 3sus and the Cyclones' first Big 12 Tournament championship since 2000.
Of course, if you ever wonder when Niang officially became a fan favorite, look no further than a Sprint Center full of bandaged eyebrows willing ISU to victory over Baylor in the title game.
He just had to, you know, get his face busted open for us to realize it.
But Band-Aids can't heal broken foots or broken hearts (country artists, you may buy this lyric from me for $50,000, I'll talk to you in the comments).
What-if scenarios are tough, especially in sports. The NCAA Tournament doesn't take place in a vacuum. Could Iowa State have won a national championship had Niang not broken his foot (and then scored eight fucking points on it) against North Carolina Central? I have no idea. I'd like to think so. The team's effort against UNC a few days later in his absence sure seemed to support that argument.
Fred Hoiberg still supports that argument to this day. Ask him.
But you know Niang: once again, you live, you learn, you come back stronger.
Year 2015 saw the junior drop a shit ton of weight, seal a win at Carver-Hawkeye arena with a kiss to the student section and take part in enough heart attack-inducing wins for Iowa State basketball to be considered a legitimate health hazard.
But, alas, another Big 12 Tournament title... and more March sadness. You can't hear "UAB" the same way anymore.
But you know Niang: you live, you learn, you come back stronger.
And, so, here we are.
It's hard to imagine a senior All-American candidate - the face of a thriving basketball program - handle a coaching change with as much grace and maturity as Georges Niang did. Losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and then watching the man that recruited you jet for the NBA three months later would be enough for a lot of college basketball players to mail it in. But he didn't.
In a final season that seems to be playing out about as maniacal as the last eight episodes of Breaking Bad, not only is Niang not mailing it in, he's completely stealing the show.
Nearly five years ago, he voiced his desire to be the guy to lead a program back to the promised land.
And by God, gashed foreheads, broken feet, blown kisses, jump hooks and all, steady as they come - passing the legend that recruited him for third on the school's all-time scoring list - that's exactly what Niang did.
It's hard not to treat this as a funeral, which seems excessive, I know. I remember literally dropping to my knees after the Aaron Craft three. Real tears welled up in my eyes when this team hoisted its first Big 12 Tournament Championship trophy in 13 years. Georges Niang's last game at Hilton Coliseum happens tomorrow, and I'm going to cry because I'm a crestfallen, clingy little bitch.
The sentimental part of these farewell articles always come off a little heavy, so I'll try to dial it back. But I think I can speak on behalf of this fan base when I say that we owe a gigantic debt of gratitude to Georges Niang for the last four years.
It's always at this point in a player's illustrious college career when you'd like to say he's about to be "gone too soon" or never got a chance to really blossom into his full potential. Because, shit, four years always goes so fast.
But here's the reality, just like Fred Hoiberg foretold...
The height of the Iowa State men's basketball program and the legend of this versatile, YMCA gamin', moob havin' old man child from Methuen, Massachusetts, happened at the exact same time. That was no coincidence.
And, someday, we're going hang a 31 in the rafters because of it.