No Katy Perry, no Deflategate, but MVC gets to host a Super Bowl of its own Saturday
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before Roger Goodell flaunts his Super Bowl, Missouri Valley Conference commish Doug Elgin gets to throw one in sunny Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Minus the deflated balls, of course.
And no Katy Perry, no Marshawn Lynch, no banned commercials, no wacky prop bets, no wardrobe malfunctions (we think). Just two top 10 defenses — Northern Iowa is fourth in lowest opponent scoring average in Division I (54.7); Wichita State is eighth (55.9) — and, for the first time since 1982, two nationally ranked MVC teams locking horns in league play.
"I don’t think there’s any way for me to describe it any differently with our guys," Ben Jacobson, coach of the No. 18 Panthers (19-2, 8-1 MVC) told FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "And then I’ve got to count on them to be experienced enough to be able to click into the other (mode) of the two that’s more important — and that is, our preparation for the game. (There’s) that part of it, OK, the coach-speak stuff: ‘One game is not more important than the next one, it’s a home game, we’ve got to protect our home court.’
"But to ignore the other part, I think, would be a mistake. Because our guys have worked very hard to get to the point where they are right now. And there’s a buzz around here for this game that hasn’t been (here) for I-don’t-know-how-long — a long, long time. So they’ve got to be able to take that in, they need to be able to take that on the court Saturday and put the best foot forward. I’m not going to downplay that and say, ‘It’s just another game.’ That’s just not true."
It’s not just another opponent, either. No. 12 Wichita State (19-2, 9-0) rolls into the McLeod Center on the heels of 27 straight regular-season MVC victories, the longest MVC streak in at least eight decades and the third-longest run, all-time, without a defeat. (Nebraska won 29 straight from 1912-15; Kansas nabbed 34 straight from 1922-24.)
"If you’re in the top 15 in the country for a year, it’s good, it’s really good," Jacobson said of the Shockers. "You do it three years in a row, that’s off the charts. And I’ve just got a level of respect for what those guys are doing that’s really, really high. We can talk Xs and Os and offense and defense. … I’ve been watching those guys for a long time. And they play really hard, they play it the right way, and it’s impressive."
The resumes on display are, too. The Shox boast the 12th-best Ratings Percentage Index score in the country, unofficially, and are No. 9 at KenPom.com; Jacobson’s Panthers are No. 24 and No. 20, respectively. Saturday is the first time two ranked Valley teams have hooked up in the regular season since Jan. 16, 1982, when No. 18 Tulsa knocked off No. 16 Wichita State, 99-88. UNI has danced in the NCAA Tournament five times since 2004, but this weekend also marks the first time a ranked Division I Panthers team has ever hosted a ranked opponent.
"That is the one thing I did tell them," Wichita coach Gregg Marshall told reporters after his Shockers slugged their way to a 58-47 home win Wednesday night at Koch Arena. "’If you play like this on Saturday (at Cedar Falls), you’re going to lose.’"
On the flip side, if Team Play Angry can snatch a road win over its next-closest competitor in the title chase, it gets harder to find a loss looming on the rest of the regular-season menu. After this weekend, the Shox face just two more RPI Top 100 opponents, and both are at the Roundhouse: Evansville (No. 73) on Feb. 22, and UNI — in the return game — on Feb. 28.
And while the Shockers have carried the Valley flag, Panthers forward Seth Tuttle might be the loop’s best single player. A native of Sheffield, Iowa (population as of 2013: 1,168), the 6-foot-8 Tuttle leads the Panthers in scoring (15.1 per game), rebounding (6.7 per game) and assists (3.1) and is the darling of nearly every advanced metric available on Sports-Reference.com, topping the MVC in player efficiency rating (29.6), effective field-goal percentage (.638), true shooting percentage (.677) and win shares per 40 minutes (.269).
"This (past) summer and going forward, I’ve been on him as hard as I have his entire career, and more than other guys," Jacobson said. "And I’m not yelling and screaming at them every day; that’s not my personality. But I’ve been after him more in the past year and more so than other guys to one, to see if I can get him at his highest level, and two, (because) he’s our guy. He’s the one running our offense, he’s the one that’s rallying the troops. He’s our guy, and he’s responded well."
The rest of the squad did, too, especially when Jacobson spent the previous summer challenging the Panthers to get back to what made them a Sweet 16 crew in 2010, the one that so famously slayed Kansas in Oklahoma City: Defense, rebounding, toughness and a junkyard-dog swagger. A year ago, given an athletic, deep roster and new rules about hand-checking and charge calls, Jacobson wondered if he shouldn’t go with the flow and focus on tempo and offense rather than the usual fundamentals. The end result: A 16-15 record and a defense that finished an uncharacteristic No. 152 among Division I schools in opponent points per game.
"I guess I went away from our (old approach), the practice mindset on the individual defensive drills, take-charge drills, the rebounding, combat drills," the coach admitted. "I went away from those things. And it was a big mistake."
The old UNI defense is back. Way back. Smothering back. The Panthers hit the weekend ranked 32nd nationally in terms of defensive efficiency (.900 points per opponent possession) and have allowed 55 points or more just three times in 10 tilts since Christmas, winning nine of ’em. The Shox, who rank 14th in defensive efficiency (.882), have allowed 55 or more just four times in their 10 tilts since Dec. 25.
"They figured out that it gives them a great chance to have success," Jacobson explained, "and so now they have, and they for a while now, from the start of the year, I guess, they genuinely cared about defense and rebounding. And are taking that level of pride in it."
Special seasons are marked by that kind of pride. Pride and flashpoints. The Panthers won at the buzzer at Stephen F. Austin (14-3, 5-0 Southland) on Nov. 18. They crushed Virginia Tech and Northwestern in Cancun over Thanksgiving break, then bounced back from a tough loss at VCU (17-3, 7-0 Atlantic 10) by throttling neighboring Iowa in downtown Des Moines, 56-44, on Dec. 20. UNI is 3-2 against the RPI Top 100 and 8-2 on road/neutral floors, and for the first time since Creighton left the circuit for the revamped Big East, the Valley has two member schools that were probably a lock for Bracketville based solely on the strength of their resumes at Christmas.
But Saturday, though — Saturday figures to be another flashpoint, another launching pad, for someone. If the Panthers win, the MVC title becomes a two-horse race over the next month. Drop a home tilt, and the climb gets longer.
"The guys look at the standings and the guys can add," Jacobson chuckled. "They don’t need me to talk about it. You know me: I try to be as consistent as possible with what we do and don’t do, and that has included this. But that doesn’t mean the guys don’t talk about it amongst themselves. They get it."