The tallest building in Ames, Iowa, is 10 floors and about 132 feet high. Madison Square Garden, the hallowed home of the New York Knicks and Rangers since 1968 and the site of the NCAA East Regional, has as many floors.
Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim and his teammates are no doubt impressed with the city that seems to have more towering skyscrapers than Iowa has people. And the history of the Garden isn’t lost on him or his teammates.
“This is the mecca of basketball. It’s an incredible arena,” said Ejim, who was making his second visit to the city. “It’s going to be crazy and fun to go out there on the national stage. There’s going to be a lot of memories made here.”
The third-seed Cyclones (28-7) have taken on the role of underdog despite being the higher seed against seventh seed Connecticut (28-8) when the teams meet at 6:27 p.m. Friday in the regional semifinals. The Huskies have a second home in MSG, where they’ll be playing for the 112th time. ISU has played here just three times, the last coming in 2004.
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Will the Garden be a home game for UConn?
“I’m not sure. I guess we’ll figure it out when the fans get here,” Ejim said. “It’s closer to their state than ours.”
But that’s not the only reason why the Cyclones might seem to be underdogs.
They’ll be without 6-foot-7 forward Georges Niang, who broke a bone in his right foot in the Cyclones’ tournament opener against North Carolina Central. The sophomore started the first 35 games. He’ll miss the rest of the tournament, and the Cyclones must find a way to make up for his 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists a game.
“We run a lot of sets through Georges. He’s one of our play-makers. He’s one of our ball handlers when I don’t have the ball in my hands,” said ISU point guard DeAndre Kane, who’s averaging 17.1 points a game. “A lot of things changed, but for us we just have to stick to the basics. And that’s getting stops, getting the ball off the glass and trying to get out in transition and run. We still have a lot of players that can do a lot of things for the team.”
There was little question about how deep a team the Cyclones have been while racing to a 14-0 record and top 10 ranking. After an early three-game losing streak in Big 12 play, coach Fred Hoiberg’s team finished the regular season winning nine of 13 games and then won its first Big 12 tournament title since 2000.
The Cyclones escaped North Carolina 85-83 with 6-8 junior Daniel Edozie making his first-career start in place of Niang. Edozie went scoreless in 16 minutes, but others such as Kane and reserve guard Naz Long helped fill the offensive void by scoring a combined 12 points more than their average.
“Our guys had their heads down a little bit when they heard the news just because of how important he is and what we do with Georges,” Hoiberg said. “You can’t replace him with one person. It’s got be a collective effort, and our guys did a great job of that against North Carolina.”
Hoiberg played many times at MSG during a 10-year NBA career and the building and its history still resound with him. He never played there while a player at ISU and he’ll be coaching his first game in the 46-year-old building that just had a billion-dollar renovation last year.
“I don’t know if there’s a lot of arenas that would have the same impression that a place like Madison Square Garden would,” he said. “They understand it. They see it. They go out there and see the banners. They see the jerseys up there, DeBusschere and Ewing and Frazier and all the great players that played here. So, yeah, to come to New York City and play in the Garden I still think has a great effect on these kids.”