By Wendell Barnhouse | email@example.com
SAN ANTONIO – Georges Niang sat in folding chair in front of his locker at AT&T Center Saturday. On his right foot, he wore a protective boot that he said was like one of the old Reebok pump shoes.
Then he said, "I actually went down to the Hard Rock Café, they were selling some pom-poms. I got myself a pair."
Iowa State's most valuable player wants to become the team's cheerleader. The sophomore forward suffered a foot fracture Friday night in the third-seeded Cyclones' 93-75 victory over North Carolina Central. They'll face No. 6 seed North Carolina here Sunday as a huge underdog.
But Niang's light-hearted approach to a dire situation exemplifies the confidence and spirit of the players and the coaching staff. Doubt them at your own risk.
"These guys know I believe in them," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We try to instill is confidence in our players. These guys all know our system. The one positive is we've got 1,000 plays in our bank, and you try to pick out the ones that utilize your guys skill set and put them on the right place in the floor and be successful.
"These players have each other's back. They've shown that all year in the way they've fought adversity and handled tough situations. We're going to get through this."
Niang's injury comes at a time when the Cyclones were peaking and positioning themselves to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. To continue the season, players like Naz Long, Matt Thomas, Daniel Edozie, Percy Gibson and Sherron Dorsey-Walker could find themselves playing key roles.
"The guys are ready," Iowa State senior point guard DeAndre Kane said. "Like I said all year long, guys have been itching to get out on the floor and play. We have other guys that can step in and take the place of Georges that was in there."
In 2012, North Carolina lost point guard Kendall Marshall to a wrist injury in the third round. The Tar Heels survived in the regional semifinal but lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight. Coach Roy Williams thought that team could reach the national championship game so he understands what Hoiberg and the Cyclones are dealing with.
"I hate it even more for the youngster because I've watched him play three or four times this year, and he appears to be really the kind of kid I would love to coach," he said.
But Williams noted that Dean Smith, his mentor, always was wary of playing teams that had just lost a starter to injury. North Carolina sophomore point guard Marcus Paige also believes that the Tar Heels will face a focused and determined team.
"Obviously, he's one of their heart and souls," Paige said of Niang. "But I think they're going to use that as motivation. They'll probably come together as a team, and they'll definitely be ready to play. So we understand that there is no letdown on either side. We've still got to come out and try to impose our will, use our size to our advantage. "
And that potentially could be a significant advantage. Niang, at 6-7, was Iowa State's tallest starter. The Tar Heels used 11 players in their 79-77 opening victory over Providence and six were taller than Niang. North Carolina had a 40-26 rebounding edge with 21 offensive rebounds producing 26 second-chance points.
"We know North Carolina is a great rebounding team," Ejim said. "For us, we've been going against bigger athletic guys all season. It's all about gang rebounding and it's all about boxing out. If you can control the glass, we have a great opportunity of getting out and playing our type of basketball and getting out and running. But it starts with rebounding."
Ejim is a fifth-year senior and Kane is 24 years old. The Tar Heels are young with several freshmen and sophomores among their top players. That contributed to inconsistency during an 11-7 start to the season. That inexperience will be something Iowa State hopes to exploit.
"We're definitely motivated," Kane said. "We're a brotherhood. We're really close. We really don't care what people say … They think we're going to lose the game, that's what they think. That's their opinion. We're okay with that.
"We're going to go out there, and my guys and my team are going to play hard for 40 minutes, and that's all we can give."
4:15 p.m. Sunday, San Antonio, CBS
No. 3 Iowa State (27-7) vs. No. 14 North Carolina (24-9)
Probable Iowa State starters: DeAndre Kane, 6-4 Sr. G; Monte' Morris, 6-2 Fr. G; Melvin Ejim, 6-6 Sr. F; Dustin Hogue, 6-6 Jr. F; Naz Long, 6-4 Soph. G.
Probable North Carolina starters: Marcus Paige 6-1 Soph. G; J.P. Tokoto 6-5 Soph. F; James Michael McAdoo 6-9 Jr. F; G Leslie McDonald 6-5 Sr. G; Kennedy Meeks 6-9 Fr. F.
Fast breaks: Sophomore Georges Niang, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken foot, was averaging 20.4 points over the last five games. … Iowa State is facing North Carolina for the fourth time and has lost the three previous meetings. The Cyclones lost to the second round in the 2005 NCAA Tournament and North Carolina went on to win the national championship. … In three of Iowa State's last five NCAA Tournaments, it has lost to the eventual national champion (also Michigan State in 2000 and Kentucky in 2012). … If the Tar Heels advance to the Sweet 16, it will be the 25th time since 1975 – an NCAA record. … North Carolina coach Roy Williams, during his time as Kansas, was 24-11 against Iowa State. … North Carolina sophomore guard Marcus Paige is from Marion, Iowa.
What's next: The winner of Iowa State-North Carolina advances to the East Regional semifinals in New York and will face the winner of the Connecticut-Villanova game.