December 31, 2014

The Missouri Valley Conference season begins with Northern Iowa owning the best defense and Evansville the best offense.

How those units fare against each other will be a major factor Thursday night when the No. 23 Panthers visit the Aces in these teams' MVC opener.

There are four MVC games slated for Wednesday before Northern Iowa (11-1) and Evansville (10-2) take the court. The Panthers are limiting foes to 58.1 points per game and 39.5 percent shooting to lead the conference in both categories entering Wednesday.

The Aces don't figure to be too intimidated since they average 79.2 points and shoot 52.7 percent to top the MVC. That shooting percentage is one of the nation's best.

Evansville features reigning MVC top scorer D.J. Balentine, who averaged 22.8 points a season ago and is at 22.5 this season.

The best game of Balentine's career came when he scored 43 points - making 19 of 21 foul shots - the last time these teams met in a 95-81 road loss Jan. 29. He was far less effective in the Aces' 80-53 home defeat Jan. 8, finishing with eight points and five turnovers.

Northern Iowa does not have a scorer as prodigious as Balentine with Seth Tuttle averaging a team-best 14.0 points. However, the Panthers possess one of the nation's deepest teams with their bench averaging 33.1 points to lead the conference.

The reserves totaled a season-high 45 points in Sunday's 74-63 win over South Dakota State. Nate Buss led that unit with a season-best 14 points.

''They've been good all year. I think we've got one of the best benches in the country,'' coach Ben Jacobson said.

Wes Washpun scored 12 points and Tuttle added 11 as Northern Iowa shot 57.8 percent for its second-highest mark. The Panthers shot 70.0 percent in a 65-55 win at Denver on Dec. 10, and are one of seven teams to shoot at least that high in a game this season.

Northern Iowa has the best record among MVC teams entering conference play.

''I told (the team) they can feel really good about what they've done in November and December,'' Jacobson said. ''Now that ends. The real season comes now.''

Evansville improved to 6-1 at home with Sunday's lackluster 85-80 victory over Coppin State. Balentine scored a season-high 32 points as the Aces blew a 19-point lead in the second half before surviving against an Eagles' team that is currently 1-13.

"It was a rough game, Coppin State played really well," Balentine told the Aces' official website. "We have a tough one coming up Thursday, it is a great way to start in conference."

Egidijus Mockevicius notched a fourth straight double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. He has eight double-doubles while the rest of the conference has totaled 15 in non-MVC play.

The junior forward fouled out of both meetings with the Panthers last season, totaling nine points and 13 rebounds. He hasn't fouled out this season.

The Aces will no doubt be wary of Matt Bohannon, who made 11 of 18 3-pointers against them last season and totaled 36 points. The Panthers made 31 of 63 3-pointers in those victories.

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