With its Sweet Sixteen showdown with Iowa State University on the horizon, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team held a short, spirited practice at John Paul Jones Arena before leaving for Chicago.
Not everything the Cavaliers’ coaches saw pleased them Wednesday afternoon.
“That’s a bucket right there, fellas,” assistant Jason Williford shouted after a defensive breakdown. “Matt Thomas just made a basket in transition.”
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, averages 10.9 points for Iowa State, and he’s hit a team-high 87 3-pointers this season. Thomas, however, is not the Wahoos’ biggest concern as they prepare to meet the Cyclones.
That, of course, would be Georges Niang, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound senior who during his career at Iowa State has totaled more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists.
“He’s a terrific player,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
At practice Wednesday, UVA big men Austin Nichols and Jarred Reuter did their best Niang impersonations, “but he’s a guy you can’t duplicate,” said assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who put together the scouting report on the Cyclones.
“You don’t want to overstate how good a player he is, but he’s so unique, because of the combination of his size and his skill set,” Soderberg said. “He’s just a tremendous passer, he’s 6-8, 230, he has a great knack of scoring around the rim and can make threes.”
Soderberg smiled. “Other than that, he’s just a regular guy.”
Niang, a second-team All-American, averages 20.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. His fellow starters are serious threats to score, too: 6-foot-3 guard Monté Morris (13.9 points per game), 6-foot-6 forward Abdel Nader (13.2), 6-foot-9 forward Jameel McKay (11.3) and Thomas.
Each of the Iowa State starters has scored at least 22 points in a game this season, and Niang twice has scored 31.
“I think what makes him equally tough is that he’s got really good personnel around him,” Soderberg said, “so you can’t just clog the lane and say, ‘Let the other guys shoot.’ Because they will, and they’ll make ’em.”
Thomas, who’s from Onalaska, Wisconsin, seriously considered coming to UVA before choosing Iowa State.
“Obviously, he’s had great success [with the Cyclones],” Bennett said. “He’s really an important piece. He really guards well. He guarded [Oklahoma star] Buddy Hield. He’s tough. He’s a tough, sound player. I remember when we were recruiting him, thinking of Joe Harris and guys like that.’
Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins compared the Cyclones’ firepower to that of Villanova, another team that’s in the Sweet Sixteen. The Cavaliers defeated the Wildcats 86-75 at JPJ in December.
“As much as Niang’s a great player, they have a lot of really good guys around him,” Wilkins said, “so we’ve just got to be ready with full team defense.”
Virginia (28-7), the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region, meets No. 4 seed Iowa State (23-11) at 7:10 p.m. (Eastern) on Friday at the United Center, home of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.
Even before these teams won last weekend to set up a third-round clash, Wilkins was familiar with Niang. A 6-foot-7, 230-pound sophomore, Wilkins is likely to start the game on Niang, who’s from Massachusetts, where he played AAU ball against Reuter.
Wilkins said he’s been studying videotape of Niang, not only with the rest of the Cavaliers, but in individual sessions with staffers Orlando Vandross and Vic Sfera.
“You’ve got to make him shoot difficult shots,” Wilkins said. “He’s a really good player, really skilled, and he’s going to make some tough shots, but we have to make everything he does uncomfortable.”
The Cyclones like to run, and they’re averaging 82.1 points per game. The ’Hoos play the pack-line defense that is Bennett’s trademark, and they’re allowing only 59.5 points per game.
“They’re long, they’re tough, and they’re going to be in gaps,” Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm told reporters in Ames, Iowa.
Niang said: “It’s obviously going to be a toughness battle. Who’s going to be tougher? Who’s going to really will their team to a win? That’s what it comes down to.”
“You’ve got to make [Niang] shoot difficult shots. He’s a really good player, really skilled, and he’s going to make some tough shots, but we have to make everything he does uncomfortable.” - Isaiah Wilkins, UVA forward
At the defensive end, Virginia’s other options against Niang will include 6-foot-8, 230-pound Anthony Gill and 6-foot-5, 215-pound Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Brogdon, who like Gill is a fifth-year senior, stifled 6-foot-7 Andrew Chrabascz in the second half of UVA’s second-round win over Butler last Saturday night in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Chrabascz finished with 25 points, but only one came after Brogdon started guarding him.
Big forwards who shoot well from 3-point range – a group that includes Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, Virginia Tech’s Zach LeDay, Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame, Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Butler’s Chrabascz – have posed problems at times for the Cavaliers this season. But Virginia can draw from those experiences as it prepares for Niang.
“At times we’ve had to go four guards,” Bennett said. “At times it’s been Anthony on them, or Isaiah or Malcolm or different players. I know that is a challenge for us at that position, and this will probably be our biggest challenge with a player that has the whole package like [Niang]. He’s not one-dimensional. We’ll have to be at our best.”
Soderberg said: “Like we’ve been preaching in practice, we’ve got to make every possession as difficult as possible for them, just knowing that Niang is going to get some points. You’re not going to shut him out.”
A victory Friday night would send the ’Hoos to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995. Virginia is one of six ACC teams in the Sweet Sixteen, an NCAA record for one conference.
UVA and North Carolina are No. 1 seeds. Miami is a No. 3 seed, Duke is a No. 4, Notre Dame is a No. 6, and Syracuse is a No. 10.
“It just speaks to the depth and quality of this conference,” Bennett said. “This league is challenging, and it’s good to see this many teams get in.”