NEW YORK CITY — It is the sexiest one-on-one matchup in the Sweet 16. We’re talking about DeAndre Kane vs. Shabazz Napier, of course.
When Iowa State (28-7) and UConn (28-8) tip off on Friday night in Madison Square Garden (6:27 on TBS), the country will be watching perhaps the two best players remaining in the NCAA Tournament duel it out for a spot in the Elite Eight.
Kane, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound combo, has been a near triple-double machine all season long for the Cyclones. He has really become Royce White without the 6-foot-7, 270-pound frame. He’s more dangerous from long distance though, knocking down nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts on the season while White posed no threat at all from beyond-the-arc.
With Georges Niang out of the lineup and UConn not being the most physical team in America, look for Fred Hoiberg to put Kane on the block early and often Friday night. That’s where he is at his best. But what about Napier, the man who CBSSports.com just tabbed as the best player left in the NCAA Tournament (Kane is ranked fourth in the same poll)?
“Napier is as good as there is in the game and in the clutch,” Hoiberg said. “When a guy can step up and take over a game at any time, it’s a tough guy to prepare for. You can do all you want and talk about him, but those guys that just know how to finish games are tough.”
UConn’s senior leads the Huskies in scoring at 17.8 points per game on 449 shots. He has attempted more than 100 shots more than anyone else on UConn’s roster and clearly is the go-to guy. If you’re into comparisons, Kane is averaging 17.1 points per game this season on 413 shots for the Cyclones.
The mere thought that Iowa State is going to completely shut Napier down is semi-unrealistic. The man has proven that the majority of the time, he will ‘get his.’
In UConn’s two NCAA Tournament wins (in overtime over Saint Josephs and vs. the East Region’s 2-seed, Villanova), Napier has gone off for 24 (where it notably took him 22 shots to do so) and 25 (he was 9-for-13). However, Napier has had off nights too this season. For instance, in an ugly 81-48 loss to Louisville on March 8, Napier went 2-for-13 with only nine points to his name.
What is the key to slowing him down?
“You’ve got to make it hard on him,” Hoiberg said. “You’ve got to make him take contested long two jump shots and put a hand in his face. We’ve got some guys that have some length and can hopefully make him shoot a little different than he is used to. That’s all you can do, that’s all you can ask of your guys is to make him take tough shots.”
Napier has scored double digits in 11 of UConn’s last 12 games including a 34-point outburst vs. Memphis on Feb. 15.
Winning helps, no doubt, but there is just something very likable about this Iowa State basketball team. From Hoiberg, who has become a media darling across the country, to the wide and constant smiles of Naz Long and Georges Niang, the personalities on this team have made it as fun to watch as any in modern day Iowa State basketball.
“One is just how well our guys have bonded with out fan base. They just seem to really relate to them for whatever reason,” Hoiberg said. “You’ve got guys from all over, not only the nation, but you’ve got a couple of Canadian kids. They’re great kids and I think people see that. You’ve got some guys that will do anything that’s asked of them and they’re great in the community. So I think people relate well to that, especially in Central Iowa.”
Fans love grinders. That’s what the players on this Iowa State team are.
“That’s the number one thing you have to have is a confident group of guys and our guys have played with tremendous confidence and I think everything we have gone through this season, all the double digit deficits we’ve fought back from, to hit adversity and have to fight through all that,” Hoiberg said. “So everything we’ve gone through this season has the guys believing in each other regardless of the circumstances out there.”
The process of building this type of confidence began during Iowa State’s 14-0 start to the season. This group learned early and often what it was like to have to mount a comeback in the second half against a good team and sometimes, away from home. Home bouts vs. Michigan and Iowa are notable. Neutral floor games vs. UNI and Boise State taught lessons too. That brutal road trip to BYU was critical. Last but not least, the regular season finale vs. Oklahoma State was a comeback for the ages.
“Twice we’ve fought back from 18-point deficits. When you do that it breeds confidence,” Hoiberg said. “We’re playing, knock on wood, our best stretch of basketball right now down the stretch. We’ve been very efficient with our offense and we’re finding a way to get some stops at the end of games, as long as you’re doing that, you’re going to have a chance to win.”
Hopefully Iowa State won’t have to fight back from a double-digit deficit on Friday night in Madison Square Garden. If all of the reporting on crowd numbers turns out to be accurate, the third-seeded Cyclones will basically be playing a road game in the Sweet 16 in a foreign venue that is familiar to the opposition (UConn has won twice in the Garden already this season).
As lovable as this Iowa State team is, don’t expect a crowd full of north-easterners wearing navy blue to cut the Cyclones any slack.