Known mostly for defense, Northern Iowa is coming off an impressively efficient offensive performance.
After losing to the Panthers last season, VCU coach Shaka Smart knows how good they can be at both ends of the floor and expects another strong challenge from the unbeaten Missouri Valley Conference team Saturday in Richmond.
This is the third straight season the two high-profile mid-major schools are facing each other. Northern Iowa (9-0) claimed a 77-68 home victory last Dec. 14, offsetting the 16 turnovers forced by the Rams' "Havoc" defense by shooting 53.1 percent and limiting the Rams to 36.9 percent.
"It was a game on the road where we were close for most of the game but never really got over the hump," Smart recalled. "My take away from that game was that we need to be better ... we're kind of in a similar place in terms of we need to progress and grow. And Northern Iowa is a better team this year than they were last year.
"In fact, I know they are, so we're going to have to play better than we did last year."
The 23rd-ranked Panthers offered plenty of evidence of the improved play Wednesday, shooting a blistering 70.0 percent (21 for 30) in a 65-55 win at Denver. Seth Tuttle scored 12 points to lead four players in double figures as Northern Iowa hit 15 of 17 shots in the first half while building a 17-point advantage.
"That's a pretty efficient first half," understated Tuttle, the team's leading scorer at 15.9 per game. "When we're playing like that, we're pretty tough to guard."
Wednesday's crisp-running offense overshadowed the season-long consistency of the Panthers' defense, which held an opponent to 55 or fewer points for the seventh time. Northern Iowa can match the best start in school history with a victory Saturday, equaling the 10-0 mark by Norm Stewart's squad in 1963-64.
"The reason why is defense - these guys are covering up for each other," coach Ben Jacobson said about his team's success. "I enjoy seeing these guys be a group on the defensive end of the floor."
The Panthers lead the Missouri Valley in scoring defense at 55.2 points per game.
VCU (5-3) is in need of a signature non-conference victory, having already lost to ranked foes Villanova and Virginia by a combined 40 points. The Rams have been idle since losing 74-57 to the previously seventh-ranked Cavaliers last Saturday, failing to shoot 40 percent for the third straight game.
Though Treveon Graham (17.4 ppg) and Melvin Johnson (16.9) drive VCU's offense, Smart has spent this week trying to find other scorers to help balance the offense. He pointed to starting forward Mo Alie-Cox, who is shooting 56.7 percent but averaging only 5.9 points.
"I think we need to continue to get Mo more opportunities and more shots," Smart said of the sophomore. "He shoots the highest percentage but he's only getting just under five shots per game, so we need to get him the ball more."
Despite forcing 17.6 turnovers per game, VCU's perimeter defense is suspect - opponents are making 40.8 percent of their 3-point attempts and averaging 70.3 points. Northern Iowa is shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc, with subs Paul Jesperson and Nate Buss combining to make 22 of 52.
Panthers guard Deon Mitchell is three points shy of becoming the 38th player in school history to reach 1,000.
VCU won the first meeting between the schools 77-68 at the Siegel Center in a BracketBusters pairing Dec. 17, 2012.