NEW YORK — About eight feet and several reporters separated Iowa State seniors DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim Friday night in their Madison Square Garden locker room.
As the celebrated duo unlaced their shoes as Cyclones one last time, what just happened — a show-stopping 81-76 NCAA tournament Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut — faded into the memory banks.
The future became a talking point.
And Kane, who spent less than one year in Ames but deeply contributed to ISU’s best season in 14 years, says its bright.
“I don’t see them letting up,” the transfer from Marshall said after a poor shooting night that nonetheless produced 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. “These guys will be great next year.”
That’s in large part because of this year.
Ejim, a four-year standout, scored a school and conference-record 48 points in a win over TCU and became the Big 12’s player of the year.
Kane, a combustible free agent who emerged as a vocal leader, stands as the only player in NCAA history to rack up as many as 2,000 points, 700 rebounds and 600 assists in a career.
Most of those numbers came at Marshall, but as Kane often said, this season wasn’t about numbers.
It was about team-wide achievement — and in that regard, he and Ejim, as well as those who remain, left an indelible mark.
“I don’t think people understand how close this group was and how hard we worked together and how much we pushed each other,” said one of ISU’s top returners, Georges Niang, who had to sit, nursing a broken foot, as a the first Sweet 16 run in 14 years came to an end. “Yeah, we got in arguments, but at the end of the day, we always had each others’ backs, whether it was off the court or on the court. “
The Cyclones started the season with a school-record 14 straight wins.
Their only losses prior to Friday’s came in Big 12 play — a fact mitigated by a rousing run to the Big 12 tournament championship two weeks ago in Kansas City.
ISU finished the season 16-1 against non-conference opposition.
One of the teams it beat, Michigan, has marched into the Elite Eight for the second straight time.
Ejim rapidly shook off the effects of a knee injury to star in that game, scoring 22 points while securing nine rebounds.
And he’s also bullish about the future.
“It looks like it will continue to go in the right direction, continue keeping up that upward trend,” Ejim said.
That’s because of him and Kane, but also those around them — and newcomers for next season.
Junior forward Dustin Hogue scored a career-high 34 points in the loss.
Freshman guard Monte Morris added 12 points band four assists while curtailing the impact of all-American UConn guard Shabazz Napier.
Junior big man Daniel Edozie made his second career start and sophomore Naz Long scored seven points in a row to stoke ISU’s comeback that fell short.
Freshman Matt Thomas started several games and Percy Gibson played after Niang’s injury occurred.
Sprinkle in transfers Abdel Nader (Northern Illinois) and Jameel McKay (Marquette), as well as incoming freshman Clayton Custer, and the next Cyclones’ roster seems full of promise.
“It’s going to be a long offseason, just to think what could have been with this group,” ISU Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Hey, who knows? Who knows what would have happened with a healthy Georges, but he’s going to be hungry, I can tell you that. … I love our group moving forward. I’m excited about what’s to come.”
And proud of what just happened.
Long said what Ejim and Kane provided for the program is “indescribable.”
But leadership’s a good way to start — and end.“Definitely feel like we’re capable of doing anything we want to do,” Long said, echoing Kane. “It just starts in the offseason. And the offseason’s now.”