Looking for something to tide you over before Duke-Virginia? Look no further than the Missouri Valley, where Northern Iowa hosts Wichita State in arguably the biggest O26 clash to date. Not only will it be the first matchup between ranked MVC teams since 1982, but the outcome could go a long way in determining the eventual league champion. Perhaps more importantly, each team will have an opportunity to notch a rare, in-conference resume booster just six weeks ahead of Selection Sunday. Oh, and did I mention that the Shockers’ 27-game conference winning streak hangs in the balance? With lots at stake and both teams projected as single-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament, this isn’t your average high-major undercard – it’s a heavyweight bout all on its own. Let’s take a look at why each team can win.
Why Northern Iowa Wins…
- Home court advantage. The Panthers haven’t lost at home in almost a full calendar year, today in search of their 13th-straight victory in the McLeod Center. And while their last defeat in Cedar Falls did come at the hands of the Shockers – a nine point loss last February 8th – this will be the first time since the 2013 MVC title game that Wichita State actually enters a league contest as underdog; KenPom gives Northern Iowa the slight advantage (54%) this afternoon. Gregg Marshall’s bunch has exhibited steely nerves on the road plenty of times before, but keeping it together in front of a crowd that’s been sold out for a month and a half is easier said than done.
- Defense. This may be oversimplifying things, but if Northern Iowa plays the level of defense it has for much of this season, it will be in great shape to win. The Panthers – currently boasting the 17th most efficient defense in college basketball – have allowed just five teams to score over one point per possession, playing a stifling brand of pack-line defense (with some other principles mixed in) that’s been incredibly difficult to penetrate in 2014-15. With Cleanthony Early no longer in the lineup, Wichita State might not have an athletic wing-type capable of attacking the lane and opening looks near the basket the way it did in 2013-14, especially if the Panthers stymy them in transition. Likewise, senior forward Seth Tuttle – in addition to his offensive prowess (15.1 PPG) – has been virtually immovable on the block this season, suffocating opposing big men and cleaning up the defensive glass (20.9% DReb). If Fred VanVleet can’t push the ball and Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton don’t hit outside shots, it might be a long afternoon for the Shockers.