AMES — Hunger pangs struck and Texas coach Rick Barnes sought a change of venue.
So he left Hilton Coliseum to enjoy his pregame meal in advance of Monday’s “crazy” 89-86 loss to Iowa State. While doing so he chatted with the locals. “Wonderful people,” he said, but some of the less-than-glowing opinions expressed about Cyclone star Georges Niang nearly made him spit out his food.
“They were killing him,” Barnes said shortly after his 19th-ranked team’s furious second-half rally against No. 15 ISU narrowly fell short. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ‘We thought he was this, he’s that.’ He’s arguably the hardest guy in this league to defend and maybe means as much to his team as anybody.”
To summarize: the 17-year Longhorns coach is a big Niang fan.
And he’s obviously not alone. There’s a reason Niang resides on just about every prominent award’s “watch list,” whether it be the Wooden, Naismith, Oscar Robertson or Lute Olson.
The 6-8 Cyclone junior scored 19 points Monday — his highest output since dropping 26 on Arkansas on Dec. 4 — and showcased his playmaking ability throughout. It was Niang who pierced the often impregnable Texas zone early and often, lobbing alley-oop assists to SportsCenter top-10 plays mainstay Jameel McKay, and finishing strong with an array of baby hooks and well-timed 3-pointers.
“It definitely was a good feeling, especially with all those guys — it’s like they start an NBA lineup with how tall they are,” said Niang, who added three assists and two blocks. “So it was definitely one of our goals to bully them around and I think we did a pretty solid job of that throughout the game.”
Yes, Texas had 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, but ISU held its own (minus-nine) on the boards overall against a team that entered the game ranked second nationally in rebound margin at 11.5.
Where Niang and the Cyclones shined the most was shooting the basketball, hitting at a 54.7 percent clip. To put that in perspective, no team had shot better than 47.3 percent from the field against the Longhorns previously this season. Niang drained 7 of his 13 shots, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range.
“You get the ball to Georges in the paint against a zone, he’s usually going to make the right play,” ISU coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We got two lobs against it on the backside by getting Georges the ball after a flare, flashing to the middle. You feel really good when you’ve got Georges and you’ve got Monté (Morris) out there playing a two-man game. Generally good things happen.”
Barnes agreed — and offered more food for thought to the misguided vocal minority of Niang naysayers.
“I love him,” Barnes said. “I’ve been in this league a long time and he’s one of my favorite guys. I just love his persona. I just love the way he plays the game. I like guys that are underdogs, guys that weren’t highly recruited. They have an air about them. I’d love to have him on my team, I’ll tell you that. He’s a very tough matchup for everybody.”