Northern Iowa is 26-2 overall, 15-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference and ranked tenth in the country. And yet, the Panthers might not even win a league title.
They close the season at No. 11 Wichita State (25-3, 15-1) this Saturday at 2 p.m. ET.
Northern Iowa handled the Shockers, 70-54, on Jan. 31, but the game was in Cedar Falls. Needless to say, playing in Wichita – where the Shockers are unbeaten this season – will be a much difference experience.
“I think the biggest thing we have going for us is that we’ve got five seniors and three juniors now,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “Paul Jesperson is one of those juniors. He has not played down there, but I think the other seven guys have been down there two and tree times, so they know what’s coming. They know the deal. And they know that we’ve got a good team and that we played well here at home and we had our crowd with us and got it going in our direction. But I think the most important thing is that we got guys that have been doing this long enough. They understand there’s going to be a difference in that game.”
If you haven’t been paying attention to the Panthers – and you should be – their best player is Seth Tuttle, who leads the team in scoring (15.8 points per game), rebounding (6.5) and assists (3.2). He’s also shooting an astonishing 63.3 percent from the field and 48.6 percent from three-point range.
As for his teammates, three players – Wes Washpun, Nate Buss and Deon Mitchell – are averaging between 6.9 and 8.5 points. An additional four – Jeremy Morgan, Jesperson, Matt Bohannon and Marvin Singleton – are averaging between 4.9 and 5.7.
The Panthers rank 230th in the country in scoring offense (65.2), but they rank fourth in scoring defense (53.8).
And do you want to hear what’s really crazy? They have two games left in the regular season, and Wichita State might not be their toughest opponent. Northern Iowa hosts Evansville (19-9, 9-7) Wednesday at 9 p.m.
Evansville beat Northern Iowa, 52-49, on Jan. 1. The Panthers led that game 28-12 in the first half but were outscored 40-21 the rest of the way.
Northern Iowa hasn’t lost since.
“In the second half, they just flat outplayed us,” Jacobson said. “Their offense was better than our defense. We couldn’t get the right stuff going on at our offensive end of the floor. So that’s something that our guys (are aware of).”
Indeed, just as the Panthers won’t be overconfident heading to Wichita, they’re not going to overlook the last team that beat them, especially on Senior Night.
“We got a bunch of guys that get it,” Jacobson said. “We can’t play Saturday until we play tomorrow night. Again, having older guys helps in all these situations. But our guys get it. They know that we got a lot of work to do with the game we got tomorrow.”