Fast forward to Feb. 27 — who plays Wichita State in the MVC finale?

Northern Iowa guard Wes Washpun is part of an experienced backcourt that should keep the Panthers near the top of the MVC.
Northern Iowa guard Wes Washpun is part of an experienced backcourt that should keep the Panthers near the top of the MVC. The Wichita Eagle

Last season’s regular-season finale provided one of the most memorable days in basketball history at Wichita State.

ESPN GameDay hyped the game and ESPN showed it. No. 11 Wichita State defeated No. 10 Northern Iowa, winning a matchup judged the MVC’s most significant final game since 1951, when No. 2 Oklahoma A&M defeated No. 10 Saint Louis.

Great stuff for WSU and the Valley.

Who does WSU play on Feb. 27, the final day of the regular season?

The MVC will, again, attempt to schedule its top matchups for what it calls a wild-card weekend. ESPN or ESPN2 will show the best game, with CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports Network/Comcast taking two others. MVC schedules should go final early next week (after Labor Day), allowing schools to release them.

Last season, matching the Shockers and Panthers offered an easy call and it turned out better than anyone predicted. It is a tougher decision this season. The upper crust of the MVC seems well-defined, with WSU the favorite and UNI, Illinois State, Evansville, Indiana State and Loyola in some order behind.

▪  Northern Iowa is my best bet to play the Shockers in the finale.

Although the Panthers lost MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle, they return plenty of guards and coach Ben Jacobson. UNI is a safe choice to finish in the top three and with the right breaks could again muster up an NCAA at-large resume. Its name recognition from successes of the past 10 years helps. There is a good chance UNI ends up being the right choice and virtually no chance UNI is a disaster by mid-February.

▪  Had center Reggie Lynch not bolted Illinois State for Minnesota, I’d enthusiastically endorse a Redbirds-Shockers finale. Illinois State, without Lynch, remains interesting and could push past UNI for second place.

Much depends on how well transfers Nick Banyard, who played little at New Mexico, and Quintin Brewer, from Bethune-Cookman, can provide some inside presence in Lynch’s absence. And nobody will be surprised if forward Deontae Hawkins, suspended for two games during a summer trip to Spain, flakes out permanently. The Redbirds are talented and should be growing in confidence after going 22-13 and defeating WSU in the MVC Tournament. Senior forward DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell will be one of the MVC’s top players.

Coach Dan Muller’s biggest test might be keeping the Redbirds on task through a non-conference schedule which includes San Diego State, Maryland, Kentucky, Murray State, UAB and Saint Joseph’s. That’s a strong effort on scheduling, but it comes with risks.

I’d lean toward UNI as a known quality, but a Redbirds-Shockers date offers the possibility of real drama.

▪  Evansville should have its best team of the Marty Simmons-era. The Aces return All-MVC picks D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius, five others who started games and two new big men. The Aces are always solid, but it’s hard to trust them as a contender until they do it. Since 2011, Evansville recorded MVC records of 9-9 or 10-8 four times. It hasn’t, however, made the next step.

This is an experienced team, coming off a CIT title, that needs to avoid letdowns to push into the top three. Last season, it lost at home to Loyola and Bradley and at Drake. Those type of stumbles separate contenders from average teams.

▪  If the MVC wanted to go bold, it might select Loyola as a Shockers final opponent. The Ramblers appear to be on the rise and guard Milton Doyle, if healthy, is one of the MVC’s top players. The potential to make a splash in Chicago won’t hurt the cause. Loyola, which went 24-13 and won the CBI, might be a year away from this spot.

▪  Indiana State is a stealthy version of Northern Iowa — you can count on coach Greg Lansing to make the Sycamores solid. They’ve finished no worse than 8-10 in the MVC the past five years, twice finishing third and once second in the Valley. If the newcomers can contribute, Indiana State might jump into the top four. The backcourt is strong. Lansing needs big men to step up.

I wouldn’t match Indiana State and WSU, but by mid-February it might look like a solid game.

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.