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Basketball

BLUM: Georges Niang, Man in the Middle

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The first time Georges Niang stepped foot in Ames in March of 2011, something was missing. Iowa State had just completed Fred Hoiberg’s first season, finishing 16-16, missing the postseason for the sixth consecutive season. At the time, Iowa State was the BCS program with the longest streak of not participating in the postseason. The once proud Cyclones had fallen to depths not seen since before Johnny Orr. The Cyclones had not been ranked in the top 25 since November, 2005.

The brash, fast-talking Massachusetts native would change all that. Niang spoke with Cyclone Fanatic on the first day of his official visit to Iowa State almost five years ago and something else was missing: "People told me about all of the corn. I haven’t seen any corn yet. I want to see some cornfields! I’m just playing," Niang said.

From the get go, Niang was a quote machine and challenging barriers. Two months after that visit he became Fred Hoiberg’s first class of 2012 commit, picking the Cyclones at a time when they were an afterthought in the basketball world.

The coaching staff was ecstatic. I was at a golf function with Fred Hoiberg the week following the Niang commitment and Hoiberg was telling anyone within earshot that Niang would be a program changer. The statement seemed odd to say about a young guy that wasn’t yet ranked in anyone’s top 150 recruiting rankings.

The reaction on the Cyclone Fanatic message boards was more cautious and confused:

“How do you say his name?”

“He looks pretty unathletic to me.”

“Not sure this guy is the answer, Fred better get Percy Gibson.”

The ESPN scouting service questioned his conditioning, saying Niang, “May not be able to play more than 25 minutes per game.”

Niang has done more than simply change the program. He’s become a Cyclone icon.

The numbers are remarkable; tonight Niang will pass Fred Hoiberg and join Jeff Grayer and Barry Stevens as the only Cyclones to score 2,000 points in a career. He already holds the records for most games won by a Cyclone with 93. He will likely get the records for most games played and most games started by a Cyclone. He will become the only Cyclone to play in and start for four NCAA Tournament teams. And oh by the way, he is on track to graduate in four years with a Business degree.

But it’s not just the stat-stuffed box scores and numerous accolades that make him one of the greatest Cyclones of all time. Like some Iowa State version of Forrest Gump, Niang has been front and center for some of the most memorable moments in Cyclone history.

In January 2013, Fred Hoiberg made a somewhat controversial move to bench sophomore Percy Gibson in favor of Niang for the first Big 12 game at 6th ranked Kansas. It was Niang’s first ever start. On the first Iowa State possession with The Phog in full effect, Niang buried a three in Jeff Withey’s face. Niang has never been afraid of the big moment. The game would go down to the wire until Bankin’ Ben McLemore tossed in a 25 footer to send the game to overtime. The Cyclones ultimately fell 97-89.

Two games later, Niang hit his first game winner against West Virginia, pausing to celebrate with the Hilton faithful before scurrying back on defense as West Virginia rushed the ball up the court. Hoiberg quipped after the game, “Glad Georges finished and ran into Cyclone Alley instead of getting back on defense.”

On the Jayhawks return trip to Ames that February, Niang drilled what seemed like a game-sealing three with 45 seconds left to give the Cyclones an 87-82 lead. The following 45 seconds would go down in infamy as arguably the worst stretch of officiating in the history of college basketball. And interestingly enough it was Niang in the middle to take the ferocious contact that was egregiously not called a charge.

Iowa State lost in overtime and Cyclone fans are still salty over the outcome. 

In Niang’s first NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame, Irish big man Jack Cooley said in interviews leading up to the game that Iowa State’s high-powered offense reminded him of DePaul’s and that Notre Dame could overpower the smallish Cyclones. Niang made him look silly, torching Cooley and the Irish for a career high 19 points in the Cyclones breezy 76-58 victory. It was the epitome of Hoiball; Skill over size.

The following game against 2-seed Ohio State was an all-too typical Cyclone heart-breaker. Down 13 with six minutes left, Iowa State went on a 13-0 run in a heartbeat to lock the game up at 69. Moments later, a controversial charge call on Will Clyburn erased what would have been a four point Cyclone lead. Now with the game tied at 75, Ohio State had the ball for one final possession with just seconds remaining. Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft got matched up with Niang on a switch. Craft held the ball with nowhere to go, rose up over Niang’s outstretched hand and buried the game winner. Instant agony. Niang broke down in the locker-room, unnecessarily taking the blame for the loss.

The next year was going to be different. It was. A recharged Niang and the senior leadership of Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane led Iowa State to the best start in program history. The Cyclones stumbled at times in Big 12 play, but secured the four seed in the Big 12 Tournament. The three days in Kansas City were as special as any Cyclone stretch that I can remember.

A hard-fought 91-85 win over K-State setup an instant classic with the Jayhawks in Kansas City on a Friday night. KU and freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins had humbled the Cyclones twice earlier in the season. In a jam-packed Sprint Center, Iowa State’s offense against Kansas was basketball perfection. The Cyclones, led by Niang’s 25 points and 7 assists, torched KU 94-83. In the final minutes, Niang stepped in front to take another Kansas charge, this time he took an elbow to the face. His forehead gushed like a Freddy Kruger movie, blood everywhere. Niang ran off the floor with a towel pressed to his head with one hand, pumping his other fist, exalting Hilton South to rise up. Niang joked in the locker room that “my modeling career is over.”

Coming off the Big 12 Championship in 2014, nobody in the country was playing as well as Iowa State. In the opening match-up with North Carolina Central, Iowa State was in command leading by 20 with eight minutes left when Niang landed awkwardly. Despite hobbling around, he scored eight straight points with a limp and exited the game with a team-high 24 points. It seemed to be a minor injury. Word trickled out that the injury was much more significant; Niang had a broken bone in his foot and his season was over. The Cyclones season would soon be over as well.

They would rise up and defeat North Carolina without Niang, but didn’t have enough to get by Connecticut in the Sweet 16. Connecticut went on to win the National Title. To this day, Fred Hoiberg maintains if Niang stayed healthy, the Cyclones were destined for the Final Four. It remains a great What-If in Cyclone history.

Niang’s junior year was highlighted by a body transformation, cups of coffee with Kermit and kisses blown at the Hawkeyes. Few endeared themselves to the Cyclone Nation as well as Niang. The only thing more impressive than his social media skills was his play on the court. Niang led Iowa State to 25 wins, a second straight Big 12 Tournament Championship and a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the season will be remembered for the way it ended. Down by one against UAB with 17 seconds left, Hoiberg drew up his final play as a Cyclone coach for Niang. He got stuck in a trap on the baseline and hoisted up a shot that was partially blocked (with some contact) into the hands of the Blazers. It was a crushing and impossible finale. And Niang once again was the Cyclone in the middle of it all.

Exit Hoiberg, enter Steve Prohm. Since May, this Cyclone basketball season has been a roller coaster on and off the floor. Through a coaching change, injuries, suspensions, comeback wins, unexpected losses and lofty expectations, Niang (with help from Mr. Consistent Monte Morris) has remained a constant. He has been the steadying force for a season that could have steered off the rails. There have been so many times when Georges isn’t on the floor and things aren’t going well where Cyclone fans will look at the bench and plead, “Just bring Niang back in.” And on cue, he will return and everything calms. 

As he winds down his decorated Cyclone career, it is difficult to imagine Iowa State taking the floor without No. 31. The countdown of this season is like the final season of a beloved TV show. You want to see how everything ends, but there is an uncomfortable finality to it all. 

The resurgence of Cyclone basketball over the last five years has been a welcome sight. The cold Iowa winters have become eagerly anticipated because that meant basketball season. If you are reading this, chances are you rearrange your life for the Cyclones. This team has brought us all so many emotions in the last half decade and Georges Niang has been at the center for almost all of them. He’s been like a family member for everyone in Cyclone Nation, through the good and the bad, he’s been around. If Johnny Orr invented Hilton Magic and Fred Hoiberg revitalized it, then Georges Niang has been the marquee magician. 

Who knows what awaits this Cyclone team over the next six weeks. There will be drama; there will be highs and lows. But rest assured No. 31 will be in the middle of it. And there’s nobody else I’d want on my squad. 

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