DENVER (AP) Anyone associated with Iowa State’s men’s basketball team has Philadelphia 76ers big man Nerlens Noel to thank for helping turn around the Cyclones’ program.
OK, the shot-blocker went to Kentucky and never attended any classes in Ames – unlike the man who had to guard him every day at practice for two years in high school and two summers of AAU ball.
”I just think it helped me learn different ways to get my shots off, use angles just to get around the defender’s hand and to do a good job of using my body,” said senior forward Georges Niang, who has Iowa State a win over scrappy Arkansas-Little Rock from its second Sweet 16 appearance in three years.
”The way I play, it goes to how I played against him every day when I went to high school with him. He has a long, athletic frame and has a quick jumper. So, I think finding a way to use my body was really crucial to finishing at this level,” said Niang, Iowa State’s only two-time All-American whose name is pronounced knee-ANG.
At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Niang could be called a tad undersized for a power forward and backup center. His terrific ball-handling skills and shooting touch make him a matchup nightmare for just about everyone who faces him, including the 12th-seeded Trojans (30-4), who play the Cyclones on Saturday.
”He’s probably a top-5 player in the country right now. It’s going to be a tough matchup for me and for our whole team,” said power forward Lis Shoshi. ”But players like that you’ve got to stop them as a team. You cannot go 1-on-1 with them because they’re really good.”
Niang is the only player in the country averaging 20 points and 6 boards while shooting 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the line. And he’s the only current collegian who’s collected 2,000 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists in his career.
His stellar game has helped put the fourth-seeded Cyclones (22-11) back on the NCAA map.
”Georges is a basketball fanatic,” said teammate Nazareth Mitrou-Long. ”He’s not one of those guys that just goes to the gym. He wakes up, watches film, stretches, watches more film, watches the game before, gets some light shots, warms up, then gets in some workouts. He doesn’t take this as a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s everything. It’s his life.”
That work ethic rubs off on his teammates, too.
”No question. To be in the huddle and to say things and for people to not say things while you’re speaking, you have to have respect from others. And he has that because he leads by example,” Mitrou-Long said.
Other things to know about this matchup:
DIALED IN: Trojans coach Chris Beard is trying to keep his players in the moment. Beating the Boilermakers was yesterday’s news. Hanging the Sun Belt Conference championship banner is tomorrow’s fun.
”At our banquet this year we’ll probably have steak and lobster, not grilled chicken because it’s been an unbelievable year,” Beard said. ”There’s a lot of things in the past and future, but right now is the precious present.
”Right now is an opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16, right now is an opportunity to live to play another day.”
ROLE REVERSAL: Cyclones first-year coach Steve Prohm came from Murray State, so he knows all about how mid-majors are on a roll in March. They’ve won their conference tourney to get here and didn’t rely on an at-large bid. And they’re the ones playing without the weight of expectations.
He’s trying to use that knowledge as he manages the minefields of the favorites.
”Both teams will be crushed if they lose, but the mid-major, you’re going out there, you’re just throwing all your punches. Whatever happens, you know, happens,” Prohm said. ”Obviously at this level you’re expected to win. You’ll be beyond crushed if you didn’t get there and you didn’t max out.”
HAGINS HERO: Little Rock’s Josh Hagins, who scored 29 of his 31 points after halftime in leading the Trojans past Purdue in double overtime, appreciates the attention but he’s not getting caught up in it.
”We’re on a mission right now,” Hagins said. ”It was really important for us to wake up this morning just really focused on Iowa State. Everything that happened yesterday, we appreciated it, it was a good team win. Everybody stepped up. But we’re already on to the next one.”
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