Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson started with his seniors, players whom he recruited during his team’s two-season run atop the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Panthers wanted to return to that status, they needed to play defense like those teams.
Last season, UNI averaged 72 points and made more three-pointers than any other MVC team. This season, No. 18 UNI averages 64 points and the Panthers are much happier. So is anybody who enjoys Missouri Valley Conference basketball as a relevant part of the national scene.
On Saturday, No. 12 Wichita State (19-2, 9-0 MVC) plays at UNI (19-2, 8-1) in the first meeting of ranked conference teams since 1982. The Shockers can continue their recent dominance of the MVC with a win at their biggest challenger. A win by UNI ends WSU’s modern-day record MVC win streak at 27. The winner will shine up an already strong NCAA Tournament resume and improve its seeding profile.
This is the game the Valley lacked last season, when the Shockers cruised to an 18-0 regular-season record with skeptics criticizing their strength of schedule for two months. No other Valley team presented a credible NCAA resume in 2014.
“For all the flak we took last year as a conference, it’s starting to shift the other way, especially with a game like this,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “The way (UNI) performed in the non-conference this year helped a lot. For us … it’s a battle of first place and to keep separating ourselves. We get this win, then we start to make a bigger gap.”
The MVC can thank Jacobson, who watched his team surrender almost 70 points a game last season and knew something had to change. It started with summer practices and continued through the fall with more drills for defense and more physical play. At MVC media day in October, senior Seth Tuttle described a ferocious pursuit of a loose ball in practice that Jacobson let continue. In previous seasons, Tuttle said, a whistle stops action quickly. On that day, coaches wanted to push their players to a higher level of aggressiveness in an effort to match the Shockers.
“Our defense is much better than it was a year ago and I think our players now have a level of pride in what they’re doing at the end of the floor,” Jacobson said.
The Panthers got away from their defensive identity in 2013-14 when Jacobson evaluated a talented offensive roster and wanted this team to play faster. It resulted in a team that scored, but finished 16-15 and in the bottom half of the Valley by allowing opponents to make 44.2 percent of their shots and 36.1 percent of their three-pointers (last in the conference).
UNI shared the 2009 MVC title and held teams to 63.4 points. It won the 2010 title and advanced to the Sweet 16 with even better defense, capped by an MVC Tournament in which its opponents scored 40, 40 and 52 points. To fix UNI’s defense and return to those standards, Jacobson started with Tuttle and senior guard Deon Mitchell.
“Like most everything else with us, it starts with Tuttle,” Jacobson said. “His technique could get better, but more important I thought his effort could get better. We just made it clear in our workouts that this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it and we need everybody on the same page.”
The Panthers are now writing the book on how to play defense. They ranked No. 16 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s statistic that measures points allowed per possession. They allow 54.9 points (sixth nationally) and hold teams to 37.8 percent shooting accuracy, No. 18 nationally.
UNI makes teams takes long, guarded, two-point shots, shuts off the lane to driving by crowding the lane. A man-to-man defense is their staple, although Jacobson used a 3-2 zone to rally against Illinois State last weekend.
“They just have a lot of guys that take it personal,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “They run the good three-point shooters off the line and try to keep the guys who penetrate in front of them. And they help. It’s a non-stop process. You help, recover. You help, recover. And they’ve got a lot of guys who do it well.”
The Panthers don’t block a lot of shots. They’re not especially big, with a starting lineup with one player taller than 6-foot-6. They are quick and long on the perimeter with 6-5 sophomore Jeremy Morgan and Mitchell and experienced and strong in the front court with Tuttle and 6-6 senior Marvin Singleton. No Panther plays more than 30 minutes a game and Jacobson brings experienced players such as Wes Washpun, Nate Buss and Paul Jesperson off his bench.
“We want to work hard to keep the ball in front of us, so we don’t have to help a lot and leave three-point shooters open,” Jacobson said. “And we want to protect the block. Last year … I just did a really poor job of defending block and too many easy baskets were given up by our team.”
Last season, WSU shot 54.2 percent in an 82-73 win at Northern Iowa. The Panthers doubled WSU’s post players. They sagged off Tekele Cotton, who made 4 of 7 three-pointers. Forward Darius Carter scored 15 points and made all six of his shots. The Shockers out-rebounded UNI 39-24 and outscored it by eight points at the foul line.
The Shockers don’t expect things to go so easily on Saturday at the sold-out McLeod Center.
“It’s hard work; it’s a grind,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “They’re a veteran team, five seniors. They’re a deep team, probably the deepest team in our league. And they play really well at home.”
WSU plays just as well on the road, as its 13-game MVC road win streak shows. The Shockers will also depend on defense in a game in which 60 points might seem like 80. They hold teams to 56 points (No. 8 nationally) and 40.4-percent shooting (No. 90).
No Valley team scored more than 60 points against the Panthers. No Valley team scored more than 62 against the Shockers. The standard is set for Saturday’s race to 60.
No. 12 Wichita State at No. 18 Northern Iowa
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Records: WSU 19-2, 9-0 MVC; UNI 19-2, 8-1
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
No. 12 Wichita State at No. 18 Northern Iowa
Wichita State (19-2, 9-0): WSU has won six of the past seven meetings with the Panthers to pull within 25-24 in the series. It has won three of its past four trips to Cedar Falls, losing 57-52 in 2013. … Baker, Cotton and VanVleet combined for 23 assists and four turnovers in last season’s two meetings with UNI. VanVleet scored a then-career-high 22 points in a 67-53 win at Koch Arena. … In MVC games, both teams allow 50.2 points. The Shocker have held three of their past four opponents under 48. … The Shockers have won a season-high nine straight games, eight by 11 or more points. … WSU coach Gregg Marshall is 3-4 in the McLeod Center, the only MVC arena in which he is under .500.
Northern Iowa (19-2, 8-1): The Panthers have won eight in a row and is 10-0 at home this season. … This is UNI’s first game in which both teams are ranked in the Associated Press poll.… Tuttle ranks second in the MVC in shooting (60.9 percent), fifth in scoring and third in rebounding. He leads the Panthers with averages of 3.1 assists and 3.1 turnovers. In two games last season, WSU held him to 6 of 22 shooting, 19 points and 19 rebounds. … G Wes Washpun averages 8.8 points off the bench. He 14 blocks and 25 steals lead UNI. F Nate Buss is 21 of 49 (42.9 percent) from three-point range.
RPI as of Friday: WSU 12, UNI 21.
A rare ranking
Saturday’s game between No. 12 Wichita State and No. 18 Northern Iowa represents a landmark for the MVC. It doesn’t happen often when two ranked teams meet.
The most recent:
Jan. 16, 1982 — No. 18 Tulsa 99, No. 16 Wichita State 88
March 11, 1972 — No. 4 Louisville, 83, No. 11 Memphis 72
March 2, 1972 — No. 20 Memphis 80, No. 2 Louisville 65
March 8, 1969 — No. 11 Drake 77, No. 15 Louisville 73