Panthers have eyes on a bigger prize
Northern Iowa's first-round foe could be in for an unpleasant surprise
ST. LOUIS -- When the NCAA tournament pairings roll out next Sunday night, some luckless team is going to draw a mid-major opponent that poses high-major problems.
It will draw Northern Iowa.
The Panthers may not look like much in a bracket, or even in a layup line. But that changes at tipoff.
Some "name" team will draw an opponent skilled in the art of strangulation defense. An opponent dedicated to frustration tempo. An opponent that cares for the basketball as if it were made of platinum. An opponent with plenty of size and heft in the low post. An opponent that's deeper than Kierkegaard and better balanced than Comaneci. An opponent with eight juniors and seniors. An opponent with a rising star of a coach. And an opponent that has danced before, learning from the experience.
In other words, that name team will draw a first-round knockout.
"They'll win games in the NCAA tournament," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has been to seven previous Big Dances while at Winthrop. "They'll win at least one, if not two games, in the NCAA tournament."
Marshall made that declaration after his Shockers were beaten by Northern Iowa 67-52 in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final. It was the Panthers' third victory in this tourney by 15 points or more, as the 28-4 team that dominated the regular season did the same thing here.
Marshall's 25-win team almost assuredly had to win this game to get in the Big Dance and appeared to have a shot at it early in the second half, leading 41-37. Then it was simply suffocated, scoring one point in a span of 10 minutes and 21 seconds against the airtight Panthers defense.
The Shockers became the third team to shoot 33 percent or worse in this tournament against Northern Iowa. They also became the third team to go an eternity without a made basket, following Drake (zero field goals in a staggering 21-minute stretch Friday) and Bradley (zero field goals in a seven-minute stretch Saturday).
"They're well-schooled [defensively]," Marshall said. "[UNI coach Ben Jacobson] does a great job. They're tough. They're not super athletic, but they're always in the right position, and they're very, very physical and strong. They're going to give somebody in the NCAA tournament an L, and give them fits at that end of the floor."
The fits wouldn't quit for the Shockers on Sunday, against a team that wouldn't make mistakes.
The Panthers turned the ball over just five times and were a plus-11 in the turnover department. For the tourney they turned it over 20 times while forcing 42.
They're well-schooled [defensively]. [UNI coach Ben Jacobson] does a great job. They're tough. They're not super athletic, but they're always in the right position, and they're very, very physical and strong. They're going to give somebody in the NCAA tournament an L, and give them fits at that end of the floor." -- Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall
That put a premium on every Wichita possession, and those possessions became steadily more futile as the game progressed. The Shockers missed 15 straight shots in one second-half stretch -- some of them decent looks, but many of them contested perimeter jump shots after the Panthers simply walled off all paths to the basket.
The Wichita State players said they settled for jumpers in the second half. But there also weren't many other good options, since driving to the basket was supremely difficult against UNI's disciplined man-to-man, and 7-foot center Jordan Eglseder was anchored in the lane to swat away five shots.
The Shockers disputed suggestions that fatigue was a factor in their second-half fade, but Northern Iowa's hockey-style substitutions clearly played a part in the runaway. At several points during the game, Jacobson ran line changes at Wichita -- five guys out, five fresh guys in. The subs more than held their own, rewarding their coach's faith in them.
"Our bench stepped up huge for us tonight," said starting guard Ali Farokhmanesh. "They kind of wore down the starters for Wichita."
This is nothing new for UNI, which has four guys averaging between nine and 12 points per game. Ten Panthers played at least nine minutes against Wichita. Ten played at least that much in the semifinals against Bradley. And nine played at least that much in the quarters against Drake.
What was new was the offensive contribution of redshirt freshman Jake Koch. The younger brother of MVC Player of the Year Adam Koch had not scored -- or even attempted a shot -- in UNI's first two wins here. Then in the final he went off for 13, making three 3-pointers along the way.
"He can play so well," older brother Adam said. "He can just be so timid at times."
Timidity vanished when it mattered most Sunday. And even if Jake Koch endures freshman jitters in the NCAAs, his veteran teammates will be there to help him through. The experience the Panthers gained last year in losing in the first round to Purdue will serve them well this time around.
"The way we are in here is so different," Farokhmanesh said of the happy-but-not-giddy UNI locker room. "Last year we were so excited just to get in the tournament."
This year, the goals are much higher.
"It's one thing to get there," Adam Koch said, "and another to win a game or two and prove you really belong with those guys."
Northern Iowa belongs. And some name team is going to find that out the hard way.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.