I can’t tell how worried Wichita State basketball fans are about Saturday’s game at Northern Iowa.
After 27 consecutive wins in the Missouri Valley Conference, and three more in the Valley Tournament last season, it’s easy to become spoiled. Not only have the Shockers breezed through the Valley the past couple of seasons, they’ve done so without many tight games.
But Northern Iowa is different.
The Panthers are ranked No. 18, just six spots below Wichita State. UNI is 8-1 in the Valley, just a game behind the Shockers. Northern Iowa’s 19-2 record is the same as WSU’s.
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How real is UNI?
Pretty darn real. The Panthers have a veteran and deep team. They have an outstanding coach in Ben Jacobson, who is in his 10th season, makes roughly a quarter of what Gregg Marshall makes at Wichita State, and has no desire to go anywhere else. Offers have come but Jacobson has never been a serious candidate for any other job.
He’s comfortable where he is. He has said he would like to finish his coaching career at Northern Iowa. His attitude about his place in time is refreshing.
“The world has changed so much,” Jacobson told Foxsports.com earlier this season. “You’re either doing really well and everyone expects you should leave to take what they perceive to be a better job – or you’re not doing well and you should get fired.”
Northern Iowa has never had a losing season under Jacobson; the Panthers are 185-103 since he arrived. They’re coming off a disappointing 16-15 season in 2013-14, though, and haven’t won a game in the Valley Tournament since 2010.
So hunger is a factor, especially since all five starters are back from last year’s team.
Jacobson, 44, is a graduate of North Dakota. Cold weather suits him as it does most of the key players for the Panthers. Nine Northern Iowa players get the bulk of the minutes and six are from Iowa. One is from Wisconsin and another from Minnesota. These guys clearly don’t mind a little snow.
Only senior guard Deon Mitchell has experienced much warmth; he’s from Texas.
Jacobson is one of the most down-to-earth coaches I’ve been around. He’s always friendly and his teams are tough.
But after back-to-back Valley regular-season and tournament titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the Panthers went through some tougher times.
Northern Iowa was 53-16 during those two championship seasons, but fell to 77-58 over the next four seasons and was just 40-32 in Valley games.
This season’s team, though, was built to be successful. There’s so much experience and depth, with those nine players all getting at least 14 minutes per game.
UNI’s best player and go-to guy is 6-foot-8 senior Seth Tuttle, who averages 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He’s the only Panther who averages double figures; guard Wes Washpun is next at 8.8 ppg.
The Panthers have a bunch of guys who can make three-pointers, a bunch of guys who can handle the ball, a bunch of guys who can rebound. Quality depth is their greatest asset and it’s something Wichita State has struggled to establish this season.
More worrisome to WSU, though, is the apparent back injury that senior center Darius Carter is trying to fight through. Carter, who had 25, 18 and 14 in consecutive games against Southern Illinois, Evansville and Missouri State, has scored just six points in the past two games while battling foul problems and back pain.
The Shockers need for Carter to be at 100 percent Saturday.
This is the first time since 1983 that the Missouri Valley Conference has had two teams ranked among the nation’s top 18. The McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, will be a hopping place for the 3 p.m. tip.