Northern Iowa (6-3) vs. Iowa (8-2)
Date: December 15, 2012
Time: 1:30 pm CT
Location: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines
Line: Iowa -2
Just 375 days ago, the Iowa Hawkeyes traveled to Cedar Falls to face the Northern Iowa Panthers in what had quietly become a low-level rivalry game. The programs had split the last ten games with five wins apiece, and UNI's recent NCAA Tournament history stood in stark contrast to Iowa's postseason drought. Northern Iowa's Macleod Center was raucous to begin with. When these factors mixed with a close game, a couple of questionable calls, and Fran McCaffery's temper, all hell broke loose. Not only was McCaffery called for a technical foul with 9:45 to play, but his on-court doppelganger Zach McCabe picked up another technical just seconds later. UNI sank eight free throws in 17 seconds, a two-point Panther lead extended to 10, and that was it. McCaffery was later thrown out of the game for arguing with the officials and escorted from the court by a local cop Northern Iowa ended up winning by 20. Iowa ended up terminating the home-and-home series in the spring, replacing it with the Big Four Classic, which is played Saturday in Des Moines.
In the calendar year since that game, Iowa played more than a full season. The Hawkeyes faced the most difficult Big Ten in a generation in January and February, improbably made the postseason in March, and coasted through cupcakes in November. Since last year's UNI game, Iowa is 21-14. The Hawkeyes have beaten four top 25 teams in that time; had Iowa gone 21-14 against the same schedule in one season, it would likely be an NCAA bubble team. It's been a big twelve months for Iowa basketball since the night that McCaffery walked.
If Iowa's to take the next step, it has to start tomorrow. Of the Hawkeyes' fourteen non-conference games, just four (maybe five, if Western Kentucky is as good as advertised) are tournament-capable squads, and Iowa is 1-2 in those games to date. A split of the non-conference prizes and a hold of serve against the cupcakes keeps Iowa in the conversation. A 1-3 mark leaves the Hawkeyes on the outside looking in barring a surprising Big Ten season, and in a league where four teams are in the top 10 and six in the top 20, the odds of such a finish are low.
Cedar Falls or no, UNI is not a pushover. The Panthers are Kenpom #70, and they are experienced. The Panthers return virtually their entire roster from last season -- only guard Johnny Moran graduated -- and have played a far more difficult schedule than Iowa. UNI has five-point losses to then-#2 Louisville and #19 Memphis, a blowout loss to Stanford, and most recently an overtime win at George Mason. They follow Saturday's game with a trip to UNLV, a home date against St. Mary's, and the Missouri Valley opener against Wichita State. The Panthers have been led by 12.5 ppg from guard Deon Mitchell and an additional 10.0 ppg from sharpshooter Marc Sonnen. Rebounding comes from forwards Jake Koch (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Seth Tuttle (9.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg). After sitting out the first three games of the season suspended, point guard Anthony James is back to annoying the hell out of me. The Panthers are doing a lot of what they always do: They box out on defense, play at an excruciatingly slow tempo to limit the number of possessions, run a ton of set pieces, and make free throws (their 79.5% free throw percentage is fifth highest in the nation so far). They shoot a ton of three-point shots (43.8% of their field goal attempts)
What UNI doesn't do is get their own second chances -- the Panthers recover just 24.6% of their misses, one of the lowest percentages in the country -- or force turnovers. Their pace is enough to keep them in most games without taking risks on defense, so UNI blocks a remarkably low number of shots and commits few fouls. Iowa will need to force tempo and defend the perimeter, two things they have done well this year. They will also need to avoid putting UNI on the free throw line, which has not been a strength, if they are going to win Saturday.