There is Another Contender in the Valley

15 Jan

Since the turn of the century talk about the Missouri Valley Conference has centered on Creighton and Wichita State.  The talk has been with good reason as the two teams have combined for half of the regular season championships, eight conference tournament titles and 12 NCAA Tournament berths, including two trips to the Sweet 16 and a Final Four appearance from Wichita State.

With Creighton now moved on to the Big East Wichita State was seen as the team to beat in the Valley, and last year they were.  The Shockers were 35-0 and a #1 seed in the tournament before they fell to Kentucky 78-76 ending their dream season.

Coming into this season Wichita State was once again thought to be the favorite in the conference, a look at the standings shows a familiar foe lurking just a game back of the undefeated Shockers and with the same 15-2 record, the Northern Iowa Panthers.

The Panthers may not have the accolades of Creighton and Wichita State with two regular season and three conference tournament titles, they do have five NCAA Tournament appearances, a memorable trip to the Sweet 16 in 2010 (we all remember Ali Farokhmanesh, UNLV and Kansa sure do) and eight 20+ win seasons in the last 11 years.  This run started ironically enough in 2003-04 with the man who now coaches Creighton, Gregg McDermott who led them to 21 wins and led them to their first NCAA Tournament since 1990.

When McDermott left in 2006, Ben Jacobson has led them the rest of the way and again has the team poised for another 20 wins and a run at the Big Dance.

The team sits at 15-2 (4-1 in the MVC) with wins over Stephen F. Austin, Virginia Tech, Northwestern and Iowa.  The two losses were both on the road at VCU in double overtime and to Evansville by three to open conference play.

How are the Panthers able to do it year after year?  This year especially, with two words: balance and defense.  Three of their top four scorers are seniors; Seth Tuttle, Nate Buss and Deon Mitchell combine for 28.2 points per game but Tuttle is the only member of the team in double figures at 14.7 a game.  The balance comes in with seven of their nine rotation players averaging nearly 20 minutes per game and all nine getting over 15.  Every one of those nine players contributes offensively with at least 4.6 points per game; it may not sound like a lot but for a team that only averages 66 per game that is balance and depth.  They also rarely turn the ball over, committing just 11 per contest.

Where the Panthers really excel is on the defensive end of the floor allowing just over 55 points per game which puts the 9th in the country in that category.  They also hold their opponents to just 37.9% shooting from the field, while offensively they shoot it at 48.5%.  Those two stats alone will keep the Panthers in many ballgames.

With conference play upon them here is where the Panthers will get tested.  They welcome the conference’s other undefeated team, Indiana State to town on the 21st before a battle with Wichita State 10 days later and a rematch with Indiana State on February 3rd.  In what could shape up to be a very important game the season finale for Northern Iowa is a road trip to Wichita on February 28th.

With Creighton gone and Wichita State not making a run at an undefeated season it is time for people to notice that the Missouri Valley is more than just those two teams.  The Northern Iowa Panthers will make people take notice when the calendar turns to March, if not before.

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