Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mid-Major Madness: Northern Iowa

This is the first in a series we are going to start running again here at March Madness All Season. We did it last year from late January to the end of the season. "Mid-Major Madness" is simply a weekly column chronicling the small-conference sleepers that I feel have the best shot at pulling an upset or two during the NCAA Tournament. The only real criterion is that a team has to be a projected 11 seed or lower in the Big Dance and from outside the major conferences. We looked at all the non-BCS conferences and teams two weeks ago, but these are the real sleepers for March. Last Week: Siena. Next Up: Northern Iowa

The Missouri Valley Conference always produces a team that is likely to contend with a higher seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last year, it took a three-pointer at the buzzer to keep Drake out of the second round. In 2007, Southern Illinois reached the Sweet Sixteen and Creighton fell in overtime. Back in 2006, Bradley and Wichita State both made the Sweet Sixteen. This year, the MVC is not likely to get multiple bids to the Big Dance, but they will again threaten to reach the second round – most likely in the form of Northern Iowa.

Northern Iowa did not have much hype heading into the season, as the Panthers lost three starters from a team that finished just 9-9 in the conference, good enough to tie for fifth place in the league. Furthermore, the Panthers were not overly impressive in non-conference play. They lost to Illinois-Chicago, Iowa State and Wyoming and headed into conference play with a 5-5 record, with their best win coming against Auburn on a neutral court. However, they completely turned their season around in Missouri Valley competition after dropping the opener to Indiana State in double-overtime. UNI won the next 11 games, including seven road games, before falling at home to Creighton by six over the weekend. The Panthers still face Illinois State on the road down the stretch, and have to head to New York to play Siena in the Bracket Busters event, but they should have plenty of momentum heading into the conference tournament. Unfortunately, UNI might need to win the league tourney as a result of its mediocre non-league resume.

The Panthers start a three-guard lineup, each of which can do a variety of things and produce in multiple aspects of the game. Johnny Moran might be the best all-around player of the trio of starters. Moran, a 6-1 freshman, has struggled lately, averaging about 6.6 points per game over the last six five contests, but he is a player who is active in the offense, and can also grab several rebounds. Moran is also a solid passer and an adept defender who picks up steals. Kwadzo Ahelegbe is a very solid combo guard who can shoot from the perimeter effectively and can also handle the point guard role. Ahelegbe is a very good passer who racks up assists. He has scored in double-figures in nine of the last 11 games. Rounding out the starting group is Ali Farokhmanesh, a double-figure scorer who can stroke the ball very consistently from three-point range. He is an efficient scorer offensively and takes care of the ball. Moreover, he is developing into a go-to-guy due to his effectiveness scoring the ball; he is capable of big nights. Travis Brown and Kerwin Dunham play ample minutes off the bench, providing scoring and three-point shooting for the Panthers. Brian Haak sees minutes.

Up front, Northern Iowa boasts one of the better players in the Missouri Valley Conference in forward Adam Koch (pronounced “Cook”). He is an inside-outside threat who can score in a variety of ways and is difficult to defend due to his multiple skills. Moreover, Koch gets to the free-throw line at a tremendously high rate. He is a solid shooter and an efficient offensive performer. He is averaging more than 16 points per game over his last three contests. Koch is flanked inside by 7-1 center Jordan Eglseder. Eglseder is a very efficient shooter who finishes well offensively and makes the most of his chances. He is also an outstanding rebounder who would have much more impressive numbers if he could stay on the floor; Eglseder averages less than 19 minutes per game despite his high production rate. He is also a defensive enforcer who can block shots. Lucas O’Rear comes off the bench up front. He is a very good rebounder who has one of the better defensive rebounding rates on the team. O’Rear is also a very effective scorer who shoots almost 66 percent from the floor.

Northern Iowa is very much a half-court team that does not like to push the ball or play up-tempo basketball. The Panthers’ personnel are suited for a low-scoring affair that does not include many opportunities. Offensively, Northern Iowa takes great care of the basketball and does not turn it over, and they are fairly efficient shooting the basketball. Because they do not get a great number of possessions, it is imperative that they make the most of their opportunities. The Panthers are great from inside the arc, but they can also knock down the three. Defensively, Northern Iowa is a half-court team that contests shots and forces bad shots but does not force many turnovers. They pack in the arc and make teams take three-pointers – which obviously hinders them when clubs are knocking down perimeter shots. UNI is a very good defensive rebounding team and they limit second chances for the opponent.

When the NCAA Tournament rolls around, Northern Iowa is not going to be a team anyone wants to face in the first round. The Panthers slow the tempo of the game down, make the most of every possession and force teams to make difficult shots outside of their comfort zone. They did struggle in the non-conference against some BCS-conference teams, but they hit their stride in Missouri Valley play and could be a threat come Selection Sunday. They have a variety of options and do have size up front to contend with bigger teams. If they are hitting their shots and don’t face a team that speeds them up and takes them out of their half-court game, this could be a potential upset prospect.

1 comment:

  1. Don't get me wrong...I like the way UNI has come on to play. They are playing very well as a team - as in my preseason MVC picks. They will be a good NIT/CBI participant.

    However, it is drawing nigh to tournament time. Time for the cream to rise to the top. Having said that, the MVC team to look for is Creighton. The Jays are on a roll right now - doing their annual late season 'run' to the tourneys.

    Creighton is the pick from the MVC for the NCAA's, with ISU-Red possibly picking up a 2nd bid (maybe).

    Youse guys need to get onboard the Jays bandwagon now.