Previewing the Cinderellas: Northern IowaPosted by rtmsf on March 25th, 2010
Tim Getting is the sports editor for the Northern Iowan, and was kind enough to contribute this article on his school’s Cinderella story.
Preview – A Realization of Royalty
Entering their fifth tournament appearance in seven seasons, Northern Iowa expected to be less of a Cinderella and more of a Sleeping Beauty. They treated loyal Panther fans and unloyal Hawkeye fans to the program’s best regular season ever, winning a school-record 25 games and peaking at No. 18 in the AP Poll. They won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title outright then went on and took the MVC tournament championship too. The McLeod Center court in Cedar Falls was fully defended with a 14-0 record that included wins over Siena and Old Dominion. This was all achieved with practically the same team that nearly defeated Purdue in last March’s madness.
Selection Sunday dawned and the Panther players wore fake grins as Mr. Gumbel relayed the news that UNI earned a No. 9 seed and a potential second round matchup with the nation’s best team. It now seemed as if a charming awakening would have to be replaced with a slipper-fitting appointment if UNI had hopes of leaving Oklahoma City alive.
The slipper fit snug on the foot of Ali Farokhmanesh, and the Iranian Idol propelled the Panthers into the Sweet 16 with consecutive game-winning threes. So will the magic and trite princess metaphors last another round? That will be answered Friday as UNI takes on Michigan State in St. Louis.
Friday’s game provides a unique coaching showdown in an old pro and young gun who impart physical mentalities on their cowpoke (yes, we have progressed from a princess to a cowboy metaphor). Michigan State coach Tom Izzo holsters a 33-11 tournament record while appearing in his third-straight Sweet 16. His boys specialize in boards where they boast the country’s best rebounding margin at +8.7. Coach Jacobson leads his herd into its first-ever Sweet 16, priding his Panthers on defense as their scoring defense (55 ppg) is the nation’s second-best.
The Spartan ranch will search for another hand to replace Kalin Lucas, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in the first half of MSU’s second round game. Sophomore Korie Lucious seemed to suffice against Maryland, especially as time expired, and Durrell Summers has been making up for lost points, averaging 20 in their two tourney games.
The Panther ranch has been given more national attention in the past week than a ranch filled with actual Panthers would probably receive. Now, they not only face a tough Michigan State squad, but will have to find an antidote for the dreaded SI curse.
How Northern Iowa Can Win
Control the Tempo: UNI does not have the personnel to either out-run or edge MSU in any aspect of the game that involves athleticism. The Panthers held Kansas’ fifth-best scoring offense (81.8 ppg) to 67 points, and that was partly achieved on offense as they refrained from pulling the trigger until the shot clock’s final ticks (save one play in particular). Focusing on setting their defense in transition also played a big factor in UNI’s shocking upset. The Panthers held the Jayhawks to a mere two fast-break points.
Continue Shooting Fireballs and Defending Icebergs: What made the Panthers’ stalling offense effective versus KU was the fact that shots fell when they had to fall. The Jayhawks’ 6-23 shooting from behind the arc helped too. As well as UNI played against the country’s top team, “Northern Iowa” would not have been Google’s third most-searched phrase Saturday if Kansas wasn’t so cold. Playing in a dome designed for St. Louis Rams football, the Panthers may have trouble maintaining a consistent stroke from three-land. Perhaps some accuracy can be channeled from the spirit of UNI alum and former Ram Kurt Warner, though.
Have it Come Down to the End: The world knows Ali can make the shot. However, other Panthers, namely Adam Koch, have proven that they possess a maturity that every coach hopes for in his players, especially near the end of a game. UNI has only lost one game that was decided by five or less points, and that was against an 8-20 Evansville team (a pretty accurate definition of “fluke”). Seven games with a scoring margin on five or less points went to the Panthers.
How Michigan State Can Win
Embrace the Slow Tempo if Necessary: Unlike most teams, Michigan State has the team and the coach to beat Northern Iowa at its own game. They have the discipline to wait for breakdowns in the Panther defense and the rebounding ability to get many second-chance shots. Izzo had this to say earlier this week: “You know, in talking to different coaches that have played them, I think that one advantage we’ve had that I think we’ve had for 10 years is, yeah, we want to play fast and we want to run, but we can play the other way… We can play that other way, and we have, and we’ve won both ways.”
Make Sure the Eagle Does Not Land: Freshmen Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman will most likely have the task of defending UNI’s seven-footer Jordan Eglseder. The two are 6’8 and 6’10, respectively. Nix has the frame to potentially keep the Eagle out of the lane and force him to make a living shooting fadeaways and three-pointers. Although Eglseder was actually converting those types of shots against KU, history has shown he won’t most days.
One can look at tournament history, dissect rosters and study statistics, but some games just come down to who wants it more. This is one of those games. Michigan State will step up and prevent the absence of Lucas from having as considerable of an impact as it could, but something huge is going on in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and it’s not ready to die. As Panther fans know, St. Louis has been an extension of their home during the last two MVC Tournaments. And despite the flood of attention that UNI has recently attained, one will still see the same humble and focused team that first captivated the nation.
Expect a sometimes shooting-challenged defensive struggle Friday as well as the emergence of a new Panther celebrity, Adam Koch, during the contest’s final minutes. Koch was named the MVC Player of the Year this season despite a failure to reach the conference’s top ten in individual scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. The reasons being his consistency and ability to come through in the clutch. This writer says he’ll do it again and the Cinderella story will march on to Sunday.