Standing on the practice court at the Sukup Basketball Complex, Georges Niang answers reporters’ questions, just as he had at the same time last year, only this time he's donning a slimmer physique.
You know the story — Niang breaks his foot in the first game of the NCAA tournament, the team loses to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Sweet 16 and Niang goes through a complete body transformation during his recovery.
It’s the story every college basketball fan has already heard since last March, and you can bet Niang has heard it a thousand times more.
“Reflecting back on last year’s NCAA tournament,” I asked, as Niang’s mouth transformed from a grin to pursed lips. “Having to watch it from the sidelines, how much does that—"
“Eat away at me?” Niang interrupted. “Yeah, it’s tough to even go back and think about it.”
Flash back to the Sweet 16 in New York, where Dustin Hogue seemed to be the only player able to consistently score for the Cyclones. Melvin Ejim was one of the team's well-known leaders and one of the best players of the Fred Hoiberg era.
Ejim played his best basketball when Niang fed the ball to him from the high post — the tactic that worked to perfection in his Big 12-record 48-point performance against TCU earlier in the year. But without his trusty counterpart, Ejim went just 3-for-13 from the floor in the five-point loss.
Seated on a bench alone in the locker room after the loss, Niang wore the protective boot on his right foot and gray warm-ups that felt more like a prisoner’s jumpsuit than an Iowa State basketball wardrobe.
“Sitting there was real gut-wrenching for me, not being able to help my team in areas that I thought could have helped them in this game” Niang said, head lowered.
But sitting there with the “what-ifs” fresh on his mind, Niang didn’t realize the transformation that was about to happen to not only his body, but to his team.
Becoming "The Closer"
Gone are First-Team All-Big 12 players Ejim and Deandre Kane. That Big 12 Tournament trophy is nothing more than a piece of hardware with the 2013-14 season in the books. The Sweet 16 run is represented by a banner in Hilton Coliseum, but the feat is just a talking point for commentators covering Iowa State games at this point.
After wrapping up a 22-8 regular season with a 12-6 finish in the Big 12, earning them the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament, Iowa State has reloaded, again, under Hoiberg’s watch. The pieces are different — it would be unfair to compare Jameel McKay to Melvin Ejim, or Monte Morris to Deandre Kane. The team is deeper with Bryce Dejean-Jones and Abdel Nader providing different looks off the bench.
But one thing has remained the same — Georges “The Closer” Niang.
“The guy has obviously played through a bunch the last couple seasons, especially at the end of games,” coach Fred Hoiberg said of Niang’s nickname, which he coined. “I think last year at the end of the Michigan game is when he solidified himself in that role and then followed that up with an unbelievable performance at BYU and made huge plays down the stretch against Iowa in our big win at home against them.”
The performance against Iowa not only capped off an impressive stretch of games that made his nickname stick, but it poured gasoline on the already blazing rivalry between the Cyclones and Hawkeyes.
The image of Niang’s game-winning reverse layup is etched in fans’ minds, but it is literally hanging on the wall in Niang’s apartment. After jarring back and forth with a few Hawkeye fans on Twitter, Niang tweeted a playful response that drew the attention of fans across the state, adding a bit of pressure to the Cyclones' trip to Iowa City in the upcoming season.
They didn't need any added pressure by the time game week rolled around.
Bryce Dejean-Jones wouldn't step foot in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the wake of his arrest and suspension, creating a cloud of distraction that seemed sure to derail Iowa State’s chances in a road rivalry game.
But Niang wouldn’t let that happen. Despite starting the game 0-for-6 from the field, he made six of his last nine shots while scoring 16 points, dishing out seven assists, pulling down six rebounds and blocking two shots.
The Cyclones would go on to win by 15 points, but not without “The Closer” leaving the Hawkeye faithful with another picturesque memory. With under a minute to play, Niang laid the ball in for his final basket, blowing a kiss to the student section before checking out of the game for his final time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
But it’s just another small image in the legacy that Niang has built.
It’s impossible to forget Niang laying on the floor at the Sprint Center against Kansas, blood gushing from a cut above his eye. The image was the result of a drawn charge in the closing minutes of the game, yet another example of how “The Closer” puts it all on the line for his team.
His second-half performances against Oklahoma and Texas Christian in the final games of this season were as good as any in his career.
Even when he’s on the bench, Niang leads his team in ways others can’t. Trailing Oklahoma State on the road, Niang sat on the bench in foul trouble, unable to contribute on the court. But that didn’t stop him from leading.
“Georges picked up his fourth foul and he was such a great leader,” Hoiberg said just days later. “That’s what the great ones do — when they’re not out on the floor they can still affect the game in different ways, and that’s what Georges did.”
And when he checked back into the game, he lived up to his name. With two minutes to play and trailing by four points, Niang scored four of the team’s final nine points to pick up a ranked road win in the brutal Big 12 conference.
But for Niang, it’s another day at the office as he looks toward an opportunity that was pulled out from underneath him last season.
The New Season
First-Team Big 12 selection. John R. Wooden Award finalist. Dubbed one of the biggest mismatches in all of college basketball.
None of that matters to Georges Niang, immediately deflecting the credit to his teammates and coaches when asked about his decorated list of accolades. Why? His accolades don’t win games.
And it would be silly to forget the leadership of Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Jameel McKay, or second-team honoree and “best point guard in the nation” according to ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, Monte Morris.
There is no ignoring the clutch shooting of Naz Long to keep Iowa State alive in multiple games throughout his career. Dustin Hogue continues to hit big shot after big shot, despite taking on a quieter role this season.
“That’s the good thing about our group right now — we’ve got a lot of guys that are capable of going out and making big plays at the end [of games],” Hoiberg said. "Dustin hits a huge three, and he made huge plays down the stretch that first time we played Oklahoma State... Naz hitting shots, Monte making plays, Bryce hitting the big three at Baylor… we’ve got a lot of guys that are capable of making plays at the end of games.”
But even with a pick-your-poison roster of clutch players, none do quite what Niang does when the game is on the line. With only the postseason remaining, the team's best regular season conference finish under Hoiberg effectively means nothing in the win-or-go-home format of tournament play.
The Cyclones hope to repeat the successes of last season, but this time with a healthy closer. For Niang, he hopes to play in the first Sweet 16 game of his career and perhaps make another picture-worthy memory.
While the snapshots of the blown kiss or bloody eye are the first thing engrained in ISU fans’ minds when they think of memorable Niang moments, it’s the image of Niang sitting on the bench in a boot that motivates the junior to make the most of the opportunity ahead.
“It pushes me to work harder every day,” Niang said. “Every day that thought comes to my mind, it makes me realize how blessed I am to wake up and chase this dream every day and how quickly it can be taken away.”