ST. LOUIS — The questions are the questions one normally asks of the defending tournament champion, along the theme of "Can you do it again?"
This isn't a normal time for Northern Iowa, so the questions on this day seemed a little cruel. If the Panthers had injured forward Lucas O'Rear, it might make sense to talk of a big weekend. Without him, the Panthers are 1-6. Winning the 2009 and 2010 tournaments doesn't mean much in 2011 without O'Rear in the lineup.
The Panthers, however, tried to play along and pretend the circumstances exist for another title.
"I think we come in here with a lot of confidence because of past experience here," guard Johnny Moran said. "I think our team is capable of coming together right now and playing really well down the stretch."
The Panthers (19-12) play Creighton today with the goal of finding an approach that works. Their usually obstinate defense is faltering without O'Rear to bang big men and rebound. They are also playing a bit faster and spreading the court more to take advantage of their shooters.
In the past eight games (including a win over Illinois State in which O'Rear broke his right ankle), UNI is allowing 69 points (ninth in the MVC in that span) and 49.6-percent shooting, worst in the conference. Its 39.6 shooting percentage is also last in the past eight games, although it is shooting well from three-point range (37.7 percent).
"Our confidence never waivers," senior Kwadzo Ahelegbe said. "There is just a couple of things we have to clean up. We watched it on film, reviewed a lot of things. We're a confident bunch."
If anyone has a right to be confident, it is Ahelegbe. He was tournament Most Outstanding Player in 2010 and an all-tournament team pick in 2009.
Creighton and Northern Iowa split the regular-season meetings, each team winning at home. The teams met Saturday in Omaha, a 63-55 win for Creighton. Ahelegbe, an All-MVC pick, had 26 points in the UNI win. On Saturday, foul trouble limited him to 25 minutes and four points.
"I don't think you can guard Kwadzo with one player," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "It's five players doing their job each and every possession to try to keep him in check. If you don't, now you really have to commit a lot of help to him, and that's when he makes you pay with his ability to spread it across that floor to the many good shooters."
The better half — Evansville and Wichita State are the only teams to sweep third-place Indiana State.
The Sycamores get a third shot at Evansville in tonight's late game. Both regular-season meetings followed the same pattern. Indiana State led by eight and 12 points at halftime. Evansville outscored the Sycamores by 13 and 15 after halftime.
The Aces run a motion offense that keeps defenders running through screens. On defense, the Aces are a bump-and-bruise team. It can be tiring playing against that style.
"Evansville is a team that grinds you," Indiana State guard Jake Odum said. "We didn't compete hard for 40 minutes, and that grinding really took a toll on us in the second half."
Have a hand — The NBA instituted a respect the game code this season, encouraging officials to hand out technicals for players who act out when displeased with a call.
The Association might want to call Creighton freshman Doug McDermott for tips. He's big on sportsmanship.
When he fouls, McDermott raises his hand to acknowledge the call. That habit went out at least 30 years ago.
Ames (Iowa) High coach Vance Downs insisted on it, McDermott said.
"That's just something, since I've played for him, I've always done and respected the officials," McDermott said. "Coach Downs is kind of an old-school guy. A lot of people liked the class-act (manner) that we played with."
Downs also insisted his players help opposing players up off the floor. Against WSU, McDermott offered his hand to a Shocker after a foul and helped him up. That gesture is also rare — although Missouri State's Adam Leonard also gave a Shocker a boost during Saturday's game.
"It's just respect for another guy," McDermott said. "I've got a lot of respect for Wichita State players and everyone else around this league. Being a freshman and helping up an upperclassman, it certainly doesn't hurt your relationship with them."
There are good reasons many players don't offer a helping hand. Some players are told to stay away from the opposition to avoid inflaming the situation after a foul or hard contact.
McDermott, however, can't break his habit.
"It's just something I've always done, and it's not going to change," he said.
Another first — MSU coach Cuonzo Martin was named MVC Coach of the Year on Thursday.
He is the first MSU coach to win the award, earning it with the school's first MVC title. The honor of top coach has gone to the champion or co-champion the past 14 seasons.
Bears senior Will Creekmore was named MVC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Creekmore, a center from Tulsa, carries a 3.67 grade-point average in finance.
Worth noting — The No. 1 seed has won 13 of 34 tournaments and 6 of 20 in St. Louis. But the upset trend isn't far-reaching. Thirty-two of 34 champions were seeded No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3.... Since 1997, only one team from the play-in round (Thursday's games) has reached the semifinals — seventh-seeded Bradley in 1998. That's a 1-27 record.... Northern Iowa-Creighton and Thursday's Drake-Bradley game were rematches from the final day of the regular season. It's the fourth time since 2008 Creighton has played that scenario. Creighton won the previous three.