Georges Niang played one of the most overpowering games of his college basketball career Friday, lighting up North Carolina Central for 24 points, six rebounds and four assists. Unfortunately, the 93-75 demolition of the Eagles is also the last time Niang will take the court this season.
Iowa State reports the sophomore forward suffered a serious foot injury in the second-round victory:
As Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg told The Associated Press (via ESPN) after the game, though, "You can't sit here and cry about it. We'll miss him but at the same time, I believe in these guys, the five guys we'll put on the floor."
Even with one young star gone, Iowa State is far from helpless heading into a round-of-32 showdown with North Carolina. That’s largely because, where Niang would have been the only multithreat player on many power-conference rosters, Iowa State is built around a core of do-it-all talents.
Both Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and ex-Marshall point guard DeAndre Kane are outstanding rebounders who are equally at home overpowering smaller defenders or dodging slower ones. Having Niang to supply a third such option against the Tar Heels would have been nice, but his absence is hardly a deal-breaker.
Instead, Ejim, Kane and sixth man Naz Long, who may now become a starter, will likely divide Niang’s shots between them. North Carolina plays so many forwards that Hoiberg wouldn’t have been able to zero in on particular matchups anyway, so this shift is unlikely to make much difference in the game plan the Cyclones would have used.
The biggest concern on offense, as Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton observes, could be Niang's passing ability:
However, even then, Ejim and the fast-improving Long will be able to make up for a great deal of production. Niang was the best passer in the ISU frontcourt, but he's not the only effective one.
On defense, Ejim will certainly be tested in a smaller Cyclones front, but he and Dustin Hogue are such strong rebounders (17 boards a game between them) that even the lanky Tar Heels won’t overrun them.
Providence, facing a similar lack of numbers up front Friday, got 11 boards from LaDontae Henton and took this UNC squad down to the wire in a 79-77 loss.
Another option is to bring 6'9" junior reserve Percy Gibson into the lineup to add size. However, because Gibson and his fellow benchwarmers have played so few meaningful minutes, it seems likelier that they’ll be relegated to spot duty as Ejim and Hogue rest, with the starters—already accustomed to a fast pace and heavy minutes—doing the heavy lifting.
As the tournament progresses, Iowa State is likely to feel the loss of Niang (and the increased strain on the remaining stars) far more than it will Sunday should the team advance. Against the Tar Heels, though, it shouldn’t take radical changes to set the Cyclones up for a trip to the Sweet 16.