N Iowa needs to win Valley to reach NCAAs
By LUKE MEREDITH
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) 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."
Updated February 29, 2012