▪ This should be a defensive masterpiece, which is what we thought before the first meeting. UNI’s defense dominated that game in a 70-54 win that ended WSU’s 27-game MVC win streak.
The Shockers shot 35.4 percent from the field and a disastrous 5 of 24 from three-point range. After the game, the Shockers took some comfort in missing open shots in an out-of-character performance. Had they merely shot below-average (say 8 of 24) it might have put some pressure on the Panthers.
All that is true and it is true that the Shockers will likely shoot better at home. It is also unlikely UNI can count on making 60 percent of its shots, as it did in Cedar Falls.
However, UNI’s defense makes open shots seem less-than-open and it’s not a given that WSU can count on a marked improvement. The Panthers are excellent perimeter defenders and with Jeremy Morgan, Nate Buss and Paul Jesperson they can throw three rangy perimeter players 6-foot-5 or better at shooters. Wes Washpun is four inches shorter, but also a disruptive force on defense.
The Panthers also use their length to make it difficult to pass around the perimeter and obstruct Fred VanVleet running through ball screens. He had three assists and four turnovers in the first meeting, his only game this season with more turnovers than assists. He committed two turnovers — one when Buss recovered from defending on the perimeter to pick off a pass in the lane and one trying to dribble through a double-team — during a crucial first-half stretch.
UNI is great defending those screens for many reasons — experience, discipline, height. Center Seth Tuttle can stick with the guard and obstruct his vision and is fast enough to recover to his man rolling to the lane. Because of their versatility and experience, UNI can switch a lot of ball screens without giving up a mismatch. Not many teams can do that.
“They definitely use their length well and they’re always in pretty good position,” WSU forward Evan Wessel said. “If we don’t have good ball movement, if we don’t execute our stuff, it makes it tough.”
The result of all that defense is that teams start to rush shots. The Panthers often win that mind game.
“Basketball, in my judgment, is a game of rhythm,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said. “And Northern Iowa is very disruptive to an opponent’s rhythm.”
▪ Wessel is going to get open shots because, like almost every team, UNI will play off him to add defense against other Shockers. In recent games, he seems to be warming to the responsibility.
He is averaging 9.0 points over the past four games, double his season average. He is 12 of 25 from the floor in those games, 7 of 19 (36.8 percent) from behind the arc. We’ve even seen a bit of an off-the-dribble game emerge, an asset that shows up in his assists total. Wessel has 20 assists this season, seven in the past six game because he is making himself just a little more of a threat.
“I’m just trying to take what the defense gives me and, obviously, they’re kind of playing off me,” he said. “My teammates are finding me and I had some good looks last game. I just want to keep on that same pace.”
More than any Shocker, you can see the difference when Wessel shoots with confidence and when he doesn’t. The emotional lift, if he is able to make a few shots in the first half, may be incalculable for WSU. If he can bend UNI’s defense even a little away from Darius Carter, Ron Baker and VanVleet, so much the better.
The Shockers need one of those confident shooting days from Wessel.
“It’s important that he drain a good percentage of them, because he’s going to get a few looks,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
▪ Both these teams are going to the NCAA Tournament. WSU needs this win more than UNI because it is 0-2 against the top 25 in the RPI and 1-2 against the top 50. WSU has two opportunities to improve its NCAA seeding before March 15, Saturday and in the MVC Tournament in a presumed rematch with the Panthers.
Shocker fans should take a moment to cheer for Tulsa, which has risen from a borderline top-50 win to No. 34 in Saturday’s RPI. The Hurricane finish at Memphis and vs. Cincinnati and SMU at home. A strong finish really helps Tulsa and the Shockers.
WSU’s resume looks strong vs. 51-100 (5-1) and there are no bad losses. Its non-conference strength of schedule ranks No. 25, according to CBSSports.com, despite collapses by Seton Hall and Alabama. Adding a win or two against UNI would appear important if WSU wants to stay in the high end of the 4-7 seed range it now inhabits.
UNI is 1-1 vs. the top 25 and 0-0 vs. the top 50, so its resume could also use help. But it has one win over WSU and already protected its home court.
▪ Saturday’s game will be the first time the Valley title came down to one game between ranked teams on the final day of the season since March 3, 1951. No. 2 Oklahoma A&M defeated No. 10 Saint Louis 50-29.
That game wrapped up a furious finish as three nationally ranked teams battled. On Feb. 20, No. 7 Bradley defeated No. 6 Saint Louis 97-65. Six days later, No. 7 Bradley defeated No. 2 Oklahoma A&M 51-50. Both wins avenged earlier losses, but it wasn’t enough for the Braves.
They finished in a tie for second with Saint Louis, both 11-3 in the MVC. Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) finished 12-2.
▪ Saturday’s loser finishes second with a 16-2 record. That is the best second-place record since Creighton (15-3) finished behind Southern Illinois (16-2) in 2003. It is fewest losses for a second-place team since Bradley went 12-2 in 1960 and finished behind Cincinnati (13-1).
A 16-2 record wins the MVC nine of the past 10 seasons, wedged in between SIU’s 17-1 record in 2004 and WSU’s 18-0 last season.
▪ WSU will try to win back-to-back undisputed titles for the first time. It won back-to-back titles in 1964 (sharing with Drake) and in 1965. The Shockers have won eight MVC titles. UNI won MVC titles in 2009 (sharing with Creighton) and 2010.