N Iowa needs to win Valley to reach NCAAs

Northern Iowa ran roughshod through the Missouri Valley
Conference tournament two years ago in what proved to be a tuneup
for a stunning run to the NCAA tournament’s regional
semifinals.

The Panthers enter this week’s league tournament knowing that it
once again represents their only path into the NCAAs.

Northern Iowa (19-12, 9-9 MVC), which is the No. 5 seed, play
Illinois State (18-12, 9-9) on Friday. The winner of that game
would likely get top-seeded and 15th-ranked Wichita State on
Saturday in the semifinals.

It’s all a long shot at best for Northern Iowa, which will
likely miss the NCAA tourney for the second straight season unless
it can dust off some of that old magic from years past. The
Panthers fell to the CollegeInsider.com tournament a year ago after
losing to Creighton in the league tournament.

”There’s a little bit more of an edge to you, and I think for
two reasons. One, it could be your last game, potentially,”
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. ”Two, the reasons that guys
do everything year-round in terms of their preparation and work in
the offseason is to go to the NCAA tournament.”

Until late December, such urgency didn’t appear to be needed by
the Panthers, who appeared well on their way to earning an at-large
bid.

They won at fellow mid-major power Old Dominion 63-46 in
November, knocked off Iowa State on the road and pounded an Iowa
team that has since turned out to be better than everyone thought
it would be. But after a 9-1 start against Division I opponents and
a sky-high RPI, the Valley proved to be much tougher for Northern
Iowa.

The Panthers, who lost seven of their final eight Valley games
in 2010-11, started league play with losses to Illinois State and
Evansville after getting shelled by fellow mid-major Ohio at home.
A sluggish offense was paired with a defense that didn’t always
play up to Northern Iowa’s usual tough standards.

The Panthers lost seven of 12 games before stunning then-league
leading Creighton on a 3-pointer at the buzzer on Feb. 4. But that
turned out to be a rare bright spot. The Shockers pounded them
82-57 and they also dropped their BracketBusters game at VCU,
77-68, two weeks ago.

Jacobson points to his team’s 5-2 record to finish
regular-season play as a sign that it is playing as well as it has
all year. Anthony James, the team’s leading scorer, averaged 18.5
points in wins over Bradley and Southern Illinois.

”We’ve limited some of our mistakes at the defensive end. We’ve
rebounded the basketball better, and offensively we’ve got more
guys involved right now,” Jacobson said.

Northern Iowa could be in strong shape for an NIT bid since its
RPI – still aided by that strong start – stood at 63 as of Monday.
But the Panthers have a taste for the NCAAs, having reached them
five times in the past eight seasons, and they’re focused on making
a push for another bid this weekend.

”For all of us, with the exception of (top seeds) Creighton and
Wichita State which are already in the tournament, the rest of us –
we’ve got three days,” Jacobson said. `This is our chance to lock
up a bid.”