No. 12 Wichita State, No. 18 UNI set for MVC showdown
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Wichita State's unbeaten romp through the Missouri Valley Conference has brought both notoriety and scrutiny to the league.
Northern Iowa now gets a chance to show that the Valley is about more than just the Shockers.
The 18th-ranked Panthers (19-2, 8-1 MVC) host No. 12 Wichita State (19-2, 9-0) on Saturday in one of the most high-profile games in league history. It's the first Valley game between ranked opponents since 1982 and the biggest threat yet to Wichita State's 27-game, regular-season winning streak in the conference.
"It's a classic showdown for sure," MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said Friday in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "It really puts our best foot forward as a conference. These are two teams that I think could go a long way in the NCAA tournament."
That's big for the league, because Creighton's defection to the Big East left the Valley with the nationally relevant Shockers and nine programs struggling to keep up last season.
Wichita State has continued to dominate in league play this year after going 18-0 in 2013-14.
The Panthers have largely kept pace.
The Shockers had their stumbles in non-conference play, with losses to No. 11 Utah and George Washington and close wins over Alabama and Hawaii. They've hit their groove in league play, winning their last seven games by an average of 19.1 points.
Wichita State isn't as potent as it was a year ago, when it could lean on star Cleanthony Early. But Ron Baker is averaging 16.1 points per game and point Fred VanVleet, a preseason AP All-American, is shooting 53.5 percent from the floor with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.7-to-1.
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Still, the Shockers know they'll likely be challenged more than they have since their last Valley loss, which was to Creighton in the 2013 league tournament title game.
"For all the flak we took last year as a conference, I think it's starting to shift the other way with a game like this," VanVleet said. "Most importantly for us, it's just a battle for first place, an opportunity to keep separating ourselves."
The Panthers have won eight in a row since a stumble at Evansville, which looks better in hindsight with the Aces currently sitting at 16-5.
Northern Iowa is keyed by star forward Seth Tuttle, a favorite for league player of the year honors, and one of the best benches in the country.
"This time it's in our own place," Tuttle said. "The place has been sold out for a month, a month and a half now. So it's going to be a great atmosphere and a great opportunity for us to get back in tied for first in the conference and protect our home court."
Northern Iowa long figured to be Wichita State's main challenger this season. In fact, Elgin said the league matched up the Panthers and Shockers for the last days of January and February and then built the rest of its schedule around those dates.
The game is an opportunity for the league to show it has more to offer than just the Shockers.
"Wichita State is clearly the dominant program in our league. No one will argue that. But I do think what we've seen this year is they have been tested far more than they were a year ago," Elgin said. "I really believe that Wichita State is not going to go unblemished this year."