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AMES — The year before Georges Niang moved to Ames, Iowa State hung in, but couldn’t beat Kansas.
The Big 12 was truly 12 teams strong, and the world spun as usual to the Jayhawks’ beat. Still does.
In the three-plus seasons since, Niang — now the No. 21 Cyclones’ third all-time leading scorer —has experienced a Ben McLemore bank-aided heartbreaker and a pair of double digit losses in Lawrence.
His last chance at toppling the top-ranked Jayhawks comes Saturday at 3 p.m. (ESPN). It’s a low-risk, high-reward game for ISU (21-9, 10-7), which is virtually locked into the No. 4-seed line by most bracketolgists, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
“That would be huge for sure to go down there and win,” said Niang, who has helped the Cyclones win an unprecedented four out of five games against a Bill Self-coached Jayhawks team. “Not a lot of teams can do that. So that would definitely be a privilege for me and something I would definitely cherish, for sure.”
If Niang can’t nudge ISU (21-9, 10-7) to a rare win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, he’ll be in good company.
Mike Taylor, Wesley Johnson, Craig Brackins, Diante Garrett, Scott Christopherson, Melvin Ejim, Royce White, Chris Babb, Korie Lucious, Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee, DeAndre Kane, and Dustin Hogue all failed to trump Kansas there in the past decade or so.
Only one of those guys — Ejim — was a four-year Cyclone like Niang, who beyond NCAA Tournament seeding implications, would like nothing better than to hand friend and former Tilton School teammate Wayne Selden his first loss in Lawrence this season.
“That would be good, definitely for bragging rights in the future,” said Niang, who has scored 24 or more points in three of the previous five matchups. “Good friend of mine so anytime you can, later in life, kick back and tell someone you kicked their butt at their house, that’s something you look forward to.”
Damn straight. Damn hard, too.
Kansas hasn’t lost on Senior Day since the 1983-84 season. To deploy a pop culture reference (with a nod to Brent Blum), one of the most popular bands at that time was Culture Club (see below, at your own hilarious risk). The film, "Rocky IV" had not come out yet. Hell, I’d only been alive for 13 years!
Suffice it to say it’s been a very, very long time since the Jayhawks lost on Senior Day (or Night). Many of you weren’t born and Ronald Reagan was in the midst of clobbering Walter Mondale for his second term as the 40th U.S. President. My God — Bill Self was playing for Oklahoma State and ISU coach Steve Prohm hadn’t yet turned 10.
"It’s a great opportunity and I’m looking forward to it," Prohm said. "I cant wait and I know our guys are excited."
And why not? A "house money" reference hit Niang during Thursday’s interviews, but he took it in stride.
"I wouldn’t say that," Niang said. "Both teams are going out there to win the game. So I wouldn’t say we’re just going out there and playing with house money. Obviously neither team has anything to lose, but I think it’s the pride of defending your home court and then us going down there to a place where not a lot of people can come out with a win.”
What if the Cyclones did emerge with a win?
For one, it would be the first victory for ISU in Lawrence since the penultimate season of the Wayne Morgan era (2004-05). The Cyclones won 63-61 in overtime that year. Morgan, who coached under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse years earlier and went on to open a satellite TV business in Ames, lost his job after the next season.
But that win at the Phog … Curtis Stinson scored 29 points and ISU halted a 32-game home win streak for the Jayhawks.
No one saw that one coming. Few expect the Cyclones to better Perry Ellis, Selden, Frank Mason et al, this time around, either.
"It’s going to be a tough task down there, but we’re going to try to get the job done," ISU point guard Monté Morris said.
This one, however, smacks of pure enjoyment. It’s let-it-all-hang-out time. A win for the Cyclones would solidify that four seed, regardless of what the Big 12 Tournament turns into. A loss for KU would end a 40-game win streak at Allen Fieldhouse, but the Jayhawks are still a No. 1 long-term NCAA seed, barring Kansas Coty-based disaster.
"We’re just going to go in there and play loose," Morris said. "Have fun with it. Don’t try to go in there and play too tense. Just play basketball and let the chips fall where they may."
Whether shattered, splintered or in tact: those chips matter. Confidence is gained or ceded on Saturday. A big couple weeks materialize in the distance — and future what-ifs beat the hell out of past disappointments.
"Whenever you can have a ton of opposing fans and play in that type of atmosphere, it’s one of the best in college basketball, so you’ve got to enjoy every moment you’re in there,” Niang said.
That’s true for him and his fellow seniors. After ISU’s 13-point win over Kansas at Ames, forward Jameel McKay seemed to sulk. His knee bothered him. His team peaked with him on the bench, but that’s immaterial now.
"It’s the last stretch run," McKay said. "I want to win. And I want to win in a big way."