AMES — If there’s an avid NCAA Tournament bracketologist among Iowa State’s basketball players, it’s sophomore forward Georges Niang.
Shooting guard Naz Long — who happens to be Niang’s roommate.
“Naz is throwing me under the bus, huh?” Niang said. “I don’t know much.”
“These next two are huge for us,” Niang added. “We need to win these next two and help us move forward.”
The next two happen to be the last two of the regular season — and they come against a pair of desperate and talented tournament bubble teams in Baylor and Oklahoma State.
First up for the No. 17 Cyclones (22-6, 10-6): The puzzling Bears (19-10, 7-9), who seek their sixth win in the past seven games in today's 6 p.m. ESPN2-televises matchup at Waco, Texas.
Baylor is locked in a seventh-place tie in the conference standings with the also-underachieving Cowboys.
Both boast identical records of 19-10 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12 (Note: Oklahoma State improved to 20-10/8-9 with Monday's late win over Kansas State) and seem to be playing their best basketball of the season — finally — when it matters the most.
In the Bears’ case, the only stumble since a Feb. 8 loss at Oklahoma is last Wednesday’s down-to-the-wire 74-69 setback at Texas.
“When you feel like your back’s up against the wall like Baylor does, you’re definitely going to come out fighting,” said ISU senior forward Melvin Ejim, the Big 12’s leading scorer at 18.9 points per game. “I think that’s a tough situation to play against — when you know a team’s going to come at you with everything they’ve got because this is their last chance. … It’s going to be a different type of Baylor team.”
The early-season type was drubbed by the Cyclones 87-72 in Ames.
The Bears were ranked No. 8 at the time, but proceeded to tumble in seven of the next nine games.
Now they’re back — thanks to improved outside shooting (Brady Heslip, 46.2 percent) and even better rebounding than before.
Just six teams nationally average more offensive boards per game than Baylor, which vacuums up 14.7 every 40 minutes.
“(Bears reserve Rico) Gathers, per minute played, is the best offensive rebounder in the nation,” said ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team could still finish as high as second in the Big 12. “So they have a lot of things that they can go to, a lot of pieces that they can go to.”
Baylor’s strength on the offensive glass clashes with the Cyclones’ ability to grab misses.
ISU leads the nation in defense rebounds per game, at 29.
So crashing can have consequences — on both ends.
“We definitely want to get in there and crash and box those guys out,” Cyclone guard DeAndre Kane said. “It’s good opportunities for us because they send five guys. If we get the rebound and go, we’re out in transition and it will work to our advantage.”
As would another regular-season win or two.
ISU’s nowhere near the bubble for a change, but seeding ups and downs lurk at every turn, hinging on each game’s outcome.“We can control our own destiny,” Niang said. “But I really don’t know how it’s all going to play out.”