Two years ago, North Carolina walked away from an NCAA tournament win that felt very much like a loss, the news delivered in the locker room that point guard Kendall Marshall was out for the rest of the tournament after breaking a bone in his right wrist.
Friday night, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg took the podium after an 18-point win against N.C. Central looking surprisingly grim for a winning coach. Georges Niang, the Cyclones’ versatile forward, had broken a bone in his right foot and was out for the season. Three of the five questions asked of Hoiberg and his players were about Niang, not the victory.
“You can’t sit here and cry about it,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully we’ve got a lot of basketball left to play.”
Niang is as essential to Iowa State as Marshall was to North Carolina. Losing any starter is a blow to a team that typically sticks to a seven-man rotation, but Niang is the tallest player among the Cyclones’ starters at 6 foot 7, their third-leading scorer at 16.7 points per game, a leader and a threat to score both inside and outside. N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton called him a “match-up nightmare.”
If any team would know how Iowa State feels, it’s North Carolina. The third-seeded Cyclones will have to face the sixth-seeded Tar Heels without Niang on Sunday, and if this is some kind of karmic payback for the Marshall injury, and all the other injuries in 2012, the Tar Heels will take it.
“I never thought we’d be on the other half,” said North Carolina guard Leslie McDonald, who redshirted in 2012 with an injury of his own. “It was just a bad experience. We just thought it was some bad luck coming our way, some bad timing. We’d never wish that upon anyone.”
There were five first-round NBA draft picks on that team. James Michael McAdoo will likely become the sixth at some point; P.J. Hairston possibly the seventh. But that group never made a Final Four, undone by Marshall’s injury.
The Tar Heels have managed to avoid crossing paths with Creighton in San Antonio this week, thrown together for the first time since that win in Greensboro in 2012, a game as fiery as it was costly.
Creighton’s Grant Gibbs slyly winked after a hard foul on John Henson’s injured wrist in the first half that drew a technical foul on Henson for his reaction. Later, Ethan Wragge knocked down Marshall as he went toward the basket, a hard foul but one without any apparent malice. Marshall landed awkwardly on his right wrist, fracturing his scaphoid bone.
The mood afterward went from giddy to gutted in seconds. Dexter Strickland, Marshall’s would-be backup, was out for the season with a knee injury, leaving only freshman Stilman White and converted forward Justin Watts to play the point
A season that began with dreams of a national title ended in the regional finals with a loss to Kansas. North Carolina coach Roy Williams would forever after refer to White, who went on a Mormon mission after that season and has not returned to the team, as “poor Stilman.”
“He was our third point guard, and our backup was our backup power forward,” Williams said. “It was just unfair. I’ll never forget the feeling of disappointment for that team because I thought we were good enough to play on the last Monday night.”
Iowa State would say the same thing, ambitions verified by a Big 12 tournament title and propelled by the tripartite attack of Niang, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane. The timing of Niang’s injury is as potentially crippling to the Cyclones as Marshall’s was to the Tar Heels, who know exactly how that feels.