Eight days after a wild celebration of confetti, championship hats, ladders, the Cyclones were thisclose to being bounced in the Round of 32, a crushing conclusion to a season that included a Big 12 tournament championship and a favorable draw in the Big Dance, many expecting Iowa State to duke it out with Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
Georges Niang broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and the balloon popped. Whoosh. Would there even be a Sweet Sixteen berth? Or would this be it, a double-digit loss to North Carolina in San Antonio?
Eventually, Iowa State's luck was bound to run out after all the comebacks, that ridiculous buzzer-beater by Naz Long. Not yet, looks like. North Carolina's Marcus Paige missed what felt like his first three-pointer of the game at 3:56, UNC up 76-68, and Naz Long corralled the rebound. Nine seconds later Long drilled a three-pointer. Forty-nine seconds later, bam, a Monté Morris three-ball. 76-74. This is happening? The Tar Heels missed three chances at their end, Melvin Ejim made a nifty layup, Leslie McDonald hit a three-pointer for UNC, Dustin Hogue put-back a blocked DeAndre Kane shot, UNC scored — 81-78 — and with 55 seconds left, this thing was just about ove-
-Hold that, Long just did it again, a game-tying three-pointer. His fourth of the day. And now Carolina coughs it up and, wait, is that Kane streaking down the floor? No argyle in sight? ISU is winning?
The irony of the last 15 seconds or so should not be lost on Cyclones fans. Kane, for all his brilliance, has blundered just about every end-of-half adventure he's gone on, adverse to passing, hell-bent on being the one to get the ball up. As he admitted in the locker room afterward, he wasn't going to dish it.
The layup, that wasn't an easy shot. One requires about five slow-mo viewings of the thing to tell which hand he let the ball go with. The rock went over the backboard square, by an inch or so. If you've ever played an iota of blacktop hoops, you know that's not ideal. The trajectory's just a little off. But Kane's shot kissed in. A clock malfunction, compounded by UNC's inability to get a timeout called, ended the game a few minutes later in anticlimactic fashion, Carolina coach Roy Williams extending his hand to Fred Hoiberg in defeat.
And now, for their next act: New York City. Midtown Manhattan. Madison Square Garden.
My next act? Thinking short-term, here. Can I crank out 16 coherent thoughts on the game/weekend/season thus far? We'll try our best.
1. So much is made of Hoiberg's X's and O's acumen, but it was his Mr. Cool vibe Sunday that gave the Cyclones an upper-hand. Hoiberg told his players to "smile" at a tense moment. Simple enough, but it did the trick, convincing the guys the moment wasn't really that big, not every shot was crucial, no reason to sweat. That wasn't true, but Long and Morris don't combine for three open three-pointers in the final five minutes if they're thinking about the gravity of the situation.
2. The absence of Niang from the offense had a jarring effect: ISU has but one player, Kane, who can consistently create for himself. Melvin Ejim needs to have the ball in the right spots, Dustin Hogue is at his best when he's cleaning up messes, Monté Morris does his thing in the fast-break and with open spaces. The spot-up shooters are just that.
Kane was the only Cyclone to score in the paint in the first half, per ESPN Stats & Info. That's unreal. You wonder if Hoiberg, with almost a week to prepare, will expand the playbook to include more actions involving Ejim. More screen-and-rolls, more cuts to the hoop, with the option for an oop, more reliable looks. Same goes for Hogue, who we hear has a more refined offensive game than he'll get credit for.
3. Luckily for ISU, Long got his misses out Friday in the opening game against N.C. Central (1-for-4). That wouldn't have worked against the Tar Heels.
In the last 10 games (8-2 ISU record), Long is 23-for-47 from distance (48.9) and, in a mild surprise, has attempted 14 more two-point shots (6-for-14). This somehow includes going 0-for-6 at Kansas State from the perimeter. Five times in that stretch Long has hit three or more three-pointers.
ISU is 10-2 when Long makes three or more threes this year.
4. Monté Morris' three-point percentage by month …
5. Ejim's four rebounds Sunday tied for fourth-lowest for him this year. If you told me that before the game, against a UNC team No. 13 in offensive rebound rate, I'd have told you Cyclones lose by 10-plus.
6. Offensive rebound rate? It's time for nerd box score! Brought to you by kenpom.com.
7. Pomeroy does this thing where he uses his metrics to compare players to guys in their same class — so, like, he could compare Monté Morris' freshman year to DeAndre Kane's freshman year, but he couldn't compare Morris' freshman year to Kane's junior year.
Well, Pomeroy says Kane's 2014 season is most similar to … Shabazz Napier's 2014. Both are senior point guards, but that's where the casual similarities end. Napier is 22, Kane 24. Kane will be playing his third NCAA tourney game, Napier his 10th. Now let's look at their games.
8. The more crucial matchup, though, might be if it's Monté Morris who's asked to stick the sensational Napier, who's been unconscious two games into the NCAA tourney (49 points). Morris wasn't great against Carolina's Marcus Paige, who hit 4-for-10 three-pointers. Yes, Paige does a lot of that himself, finding open crevices here and there, but Morris could have done a better job getting his hands in the shooter's grill.
9. It'll be a home game for UConn at Madison Square Garden, which I'll maintain as the best place in the world to watch a basketball game. Kansas' Phog Allen Fieldhouse is No. 2. Granted, I've been to MSG twice and Phog once.
Anyway, the Huskies (28-8) lost to one non-tournament team this year (Jan. 4 to Houston) but their worst loss was easily an away game at Louisville just March 8, 81-48, which saw Napier shoot 1-for-10 from the perimeter.
10. Far from just the Napier show, though. DeAndre Daniels, a hot commodity on the recruiting trail some years ago, is now a junior, and he's scoring every which way: 44.7 from three (46-for-103) and 46.9 from twos.
At 6-foot-9, but with guard-like athleticism, who guards Daniels? Ejim probably gets first crack. Will be extremely difficult.
11. UConn has a seven-footer in Amida Brimah who starts but plays inconsistent minutes. Expect Daniel Edozie to get a second consecutive start. Looking at the Huskies' starting five, it's Napier, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, Daniels and Brimah.
That's: 6-1, 6, 6-7, 6-9, 7. So, Napier being the bigger player than Boatright by an inch, does that mean it's Kane's assignment? Maybe, but if I'm Hoiberg (and I do wish I was) I use Morris on Napier, give Kane a slightly easier defensive assignment on Boatright and hope that saves him some for the other end.
12. Things UConn is elite at: Defense, three-point shooting, free throw percentage. Things it's good at: Offensive efficiency, taking care of the basketball. Things it's bad at: Two-point percentage, getting to the free throw line, defensive rebounding.
The Huskies play a slow-tempo game and if you watched them against Villanova it's a halfcourt offense with plenty of actions with one goal in mind: Get Napier space on the perimeter, from which he can shoot or fake, then drive. There he can take it to the hoop or kick out to Boatright (37.7 three-point percentage) or Daniels.
13. Fred Hoiberg makes around $2 million a year. That's a competitive rate, both in college (Rick Barnes makes $2.4) and the NBA, where new hires like Brian Shaw of the Nuggets and Larry Drew of the Bucks make $2 million.
If NBA teams come calling — yes, we're having this discussion — and Jamie Pollard refuses to budge from the figure, which Hoiberg recently agreed upon, then the difference of $500,000 likely won't matter. It's really not about money for Hoiberg, who made over $10 million in the NBA. His family is happy in Ames and, after his daughter Paige graduates this next spring, they still have three kids to get through school.
But … what if he got a Brad Stevens-type offer, $3.66 million a season? Isn't that too much to pass up? It's tough to see Hoiberg leaving a comfortable job at Iowa State to coach a dysfunctional franchise like the Knicks, although he'd be great there, thanks to his media skills. The T'Wolves are the obvious fit, of course
Not trying to flame. This isn't a serious thing right now. But Hoiberg has been a star of the NCAA tournament, and if the Cyclones make more noise without Niang, his stock's only going to rise.
14. Iowa State plays UConn, the No. 7 seed, at 6:27 CST on Friday, broadcast by TBS. Michigan State-Virginia follows and the winners of the two games meet Sunday for the chance to go to the Final Four.
My early prediction? Going with UConn in a really close game, because I'm not sure how ISU can guard not only Napier but the Huskies' other weapons. On the other end, UConn is a great defensive team with plenty of size.
15. Among the most important tasks this offseason is restoring Matt Thomas' confidence. The freshman was 1-for-4 Sunday, but just two three-pointers, and he just stroked the one from the top of the key. Why doesn't he try from long more? Iowa State needs that right now, because Thomas is every bit the shooter Long is. He just doesn't bring that into the game, and it's about confidence.
Thomas has said the speed of the game is different in high school and he's still getting used to the role as a catch-and-shoot player, struggling with catching and hoisting before the defense arrives. Often times Thomas will fake, dribble a few steps in and launch an off-balance shot. Sometimes it works, like against Baylor. Other times it doesn't, like yesterday.
When Thomas isn't shooting, Iowa State has literally one scoring threat off the bench in Long. The Cyclones need Thomas to fire away.
16. There's something about the Sweet Sixteen that validates a season, and I believe Sunday's win to clinch the trip to New York does just that for Iowa State. A Round of 32 loss would have been a bitter, bitter end to a great season, Niang or no Niang, but being one of the final 16 and going to the Big Apple, along with winning the Big 12 tourney and having Ejim named as the Big 12 POY ensures 2013-14 will be a season for the ages, no matter what happens next.