SAN ANTONIO — “I’m OK.”
When Iowa State standout forward Georges Niang spoke those words to his teammates long after being lost for the season to a broken right foot late Friday, tension eased.
Positive vibes stemming from a 93-75 second-round NCAA tournament rout of North Carolina Central returned — even as the reality of Niang’s absence for Sunday's 4:15 p.m. third-round matchup between the third-seeded
Cyclones and sixth-seeded North Carolina fully set in.
“It’s knowing that he’s OK that we’re OK,” said ISU guard DeAndre Kane, who looks to see his already significant facilitator status spike while Niang’s relegated to the role of cheerleader today and for at least six weeks. “That’s our brother. … He’s our leader and he was down, so we were a little down. (Now) he’s up, he’s happy, so the team is happy. We’re OK and he’s OK with it. We’re ready to go.”
Willing, too — but it will take more that sheer determination to outmuscle the Tar Heels’ starting front line that hoards offensive rebounds at the nation’s ninth-best rate of 14.3 per game.
“If you can compete with those guys on the glass, you’re going to have a chance,” Cyclones Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “If not, it’s not going to be very pretty out there.”
No. 9 ISU (27-7) has taken down similar long, agile frontcourts before, including during last week’s Big 12 Championship run at Kansas City, where Kansas and Baylor loomed as larger adversaries.
“Melvin (Ejim) and Dustin (Hogue), I have all the confidence in the world they’ll go in there and bang,” said guard Naz Long, who is listed as a “possible starter” in Niang’s stead.
But the Cyclones needed Niang — the hub of their high-scoring offense — to topple the Bears and the Jayhawks.
Now he’s done.
That means Kane and Monte Morris will handle the ball more than ever, Hoiberg said, and Ejim will take on Niang’s role when they initiate the offense via a two-man game.
“We don’t have that safety net out there,” Morris said. “So we’ll see.”
Kane’s taking the same approach.
“Whatever coach wants to do, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
What will that be?
Hoiberg said sparingly-used big man Daniel Edozie’s been solid in spurts and can provide a boost.
He also said ISU could go smaller against the outside shooting-averse Tar Heels (24-9), who rank 341st nationally in 3-pointers made per game at 4.2.
“I guess one fortunate thing is we’ve got 1,000 plays and we’ve got to go in the bank and pick out the ones we feel we can utilize to our guys’ strengths,” Hoiberg said.
One thing’s certain: Rebounding and transition play will be key, as usual.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige said he looks forward to a team that could try to speed up, not slow down, the Tar Heels.
“It will definitely be something to watch,” the former Linn-Mar star said.
And to endure.
If ISU can remain OK without Niang, the first Sweet Sixteen trip since 2000 beckons.“It’s going to be a fast-paced game,” said Kane, the only player in NCAA history to amass as many as 2,000 points, 700 rebounds and 600 assists in a career. “Guys are going to be tired. Guys are going to be fouling. It’s going to be a good game.”