SAN ANTONIO – Iowa State has seen all this before and it never seems to end well for the Cyclones.
The Big 12 champion steamrolled into Sunday’s third round of the NCAA tournament, just as it had in its last three appearances. The Cyclones are facing North Carolina, just as they did in 2005. And they will have to play without an injured starter, just as they did last year when they were eliminated by Ohio State on a buzzer-beater.
Forward Georges Niang, Iowa State’s hottest hand, broke his right foot in Friday night’s 93-75 win over North Carolina Central. For the third-seeded Cyclones, who haven’t reached the round of 16 since 2000, it’s another March misfortune after guard Chris Babb watched the heartbreaking loss to Ohio State from the bench with a sprained ankle.
The Cyclones (27-11) have to find a way to manage without Niang, who coach Fred Hoiberg on Saturday described as “arguably” their most important player.
“Somebody will step up. They always do in situations like this,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg said he had not decided who would start for Niang against the sixth-seeded Tar Heels (24-9).
Niang scored 24 points against North Carolina Central and averaged a team-high 18.7 points in the Big 12 tournament. Reliable when it matters most, Niang shot nearly 54 percent in the final 5 minutes of games this season.
If that wasn’t enough, Iowa State will sorely miss his size: the 6-foot-7 sophomore towered in a starting lineup that lacks a traditional big man. North Carolina’s frontcourt is fortified by a trio of 6-foot-9 forwards – Kennedy Meeks, James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson – who combined for 44 points in a 79-77 thriller over 11th-seeded Providence.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams cautioned Saturday that size becomes a liability when Iowa State spreads the court. He said he hates that Niang can’t play.
“Coach (Dean) Smith used to say he hated to play somebody when they just lost one of their front line players because everybody banded together even more and were more motivated and all that kind of thing,” Williams said. “So hate it for that reason, too.”
Five things to look for when North Carolina plays Iowa State:
LONG FILLING BIG SHOES?
One option for Iowa State is switching to a three-guard starting lineup without Niang. Sophomore Naz Long is Iowa State’s top 3-point marksman, shooting nearly 58 percent (11 of 19) from long range in his last five games, and has some experience with seven previous starts.
The Cyclones can take comfort in still having the Big 12’s player of the year. Melvin Ejam is more than capable of picking up the slack in Iowa State’s otherwise well-balanced offense, dropping 48 points against TCU and 30 points against Kansas State this season.
North Carolina guard Marcus Paige smiled wide Saturday at the Tar Heels finally getting an up-tempo opponent that matches their need for speed. Providence had success keeping North Carolina in halfcourt sets and Paige shrugged at the grind-it-out style of Atlantic Coast Conference foes. “It will make it interesting,” Paige said. “We haven’t had that many games, I can probably only name a few, where teams have tried to run us. So it will be definitely something to watch.”
Williams isn’t pleased that his Tar Heels have let opponents shoot 50 percent in each of their last three games. Defense now replaces rebounding as the top concern for North Carolina, and after doing better on the boards against Providence, Williams is hopeful.
North Carolina lost in the third round last year, but the Tar Heels under Williams have never bowed out this early in consecutive seasons. Sunday’s winner will play UConn or Villanova at Madison Square Garden.