This article first ran online on March 19, 2016 and in print on March 21. It can be viewed here: http://isdai.ly/25ckV4o
DENVER — Two years ago, former ISU coach Fred Hoiberg and the ISU men’s basketball team punched their ticket to the Sweet 16.
But there was a piece missing: Georges Niang.
Niang, a sophomore at the time, suffered a fracture in his right foot in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, sidelining him for the season. The Cyclones went on to fall in the Sweet 16 to UConn, which went on to win the NCAA Tournament that year.
That trip to the Sweet 16 doesn’t count, though. At least not in Niang’s mind.
“I was joking with Naz [before the game, and he said], ‘you didn't earn the last Sweet 16 you were in,’” Niang said. “[After the game] I made sure to tell him I earned this one.”
Niang led No. 4-seeded Iowa State to a 78-61 win against No. 12-seeded Little Rock on Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver, giving the Cyclones their second Sweet 16 berth in the past three years.
“I said 'stay the course' a lot,” Prohm said. “A lot of people laughed [and] didn’t think that really would work. The character in the locker room is really, really good. I can’t be happier for our guys.”
This season was nothing short of a rollercoaster.
The Cyclones were ranked in the top-10 nationally before the season started. Things started out smoothly. Prohm seemed to be a good fit after following in Hoiberg's footsteps. All was well and expectations remained extremely high.
Then things turned south. The Cyclones lost a few games and dropped quickly in the rankings. Suddenly, the high hopes that fans had for the season started to dwindle.
Fans were upset and expressed it online. Prohm and many of the players started receiving hate messages on social media, even causing Prohm to delete his Twitter and Facebook apps from his phones.
But Prohm didn’t change his plan. And now that they’ve survived the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, he couldn’t be happier.
“I just can’t say how proud I am because we could have divided so many times with the pressure that these kids have had on them all season long and they wouldn’t do it,” Prohm said. “They wouldn’t waiver.”
The process, though, wasn't simple.
"It wasn’t easy,” Niang said. “There were times when I was like, ‘Dang, man, this is the toughest thing we’ve ever had to do.’ But guys kept plugging, kept pushing through.”
Even at the end of the season, things hadn’t quite turned around. The Cyclones lost seven of their last 12 games before the NCAA Tournament, causing many to doubt how they would do in the ‘Big Dance.’
Niang, though, wasn’t ready to give up on the season. None of them were. And the biggest reason for that, Niang said, was Prohm.
“As the season went on … you started to see his vision, and you could start to relate,” Niang said. “When you can relate to someone, that just makes you want to play that much harder for them. Coach is out there coaching his tail off. He’s been a great fit for us and truly a blessing.”
Niang’s time with Prohm was short lived. They met for the first time last June, and Niang will graduate in the spring.
But even in the short time that the two have spent with each other, Niang said his experience with Prohm has changed him.
“This guy just wants nothing but for us to have the most success,” Niang said. “He doesn’t want any thank-yous or anything like that. He’s just out there because he loves the game of basketball and loves coaching.
“Not only is he coaching us to be great players, but great men. I can honestly say, I feel like it’s cliché and I’m repeating what Marcus Paige said, but he’s made me a better man since he’s stepped on campus.”
Iowa State will head to Chicago next weekend to take on No. 1 seed Virginia on Friday.
While he's happy to be moving on in the tournament, Prohm said he doesn’t want this to be the team’s peak. While they should celebrate the win, Prohm wants to make sure they keep things in perspective.
“I just don’t want this to be the highest moment in their life,” Prohm said. “It’s a special moment. I want them to enjoy it. But man I hope there are bigger things out there for them just in life, and in basketball, too.”
Center Jameel McKay said he feels the same way. He said he knows they still have more left in them. And with Virginia up next, he’s ready to prove it.
“I’m happy we're going to Chicago, but I want to see something else,” McKay said. “We’ve been to the Sweet 16 … I think we're better than the Sweet 16, to be truthfully honest. I’m not shameful saying that or scared to say that. I think we’re better than the Sweet 16.
"It’s up to us to show it.”