N. Iowa-Illinois St. Preview
Northern Iowa's home matchup against defending Missouri Valley champion Wichita State is a week away, though the conference lead might not even be at stake if the Panthers can't first take care of business on the road.
In a matchup featuring the two top scorers in the league, No. 20 Northern Iowa seeks its seventh straight victory Sunday against Illinois State in the opener of a two-game trip ahead of the potential showdown with the Shockers.
Following Wednesday's 66-60 home win over Indiana State, the Panthers (17-2, 6-1) have won six consecutive league games or more six different times over the past five seasons under coach Ben Jacobsen.
They're also off to their best conference start since winning the first seven during the 2009-10 season and are trying to keep pace with a 14th-ranked Wichita State team that is 7-0 in the league after going 18-0 last season.
Northern Iowa, which has won 13 straight at home, can't afford to look beyond its trip against Illinois State and Southern Illinois before hosting the Shockers next Saturday.
The Redbirds (12-7, 4-3) will certainly be ready as they chase their 21st win in 25 games at Redbird Arena. They're also seeking their fourth victory over a ranked opponent in as many seasons.
"I cannot wait for what should be an unbelievable crowd," coach Dan Muller said. "It's going to be exciting."
Muller's squad, though, will have to contend with one of the nation's top defensive teams at 54.9 points allowed per game, as well as the MVC's leading scorer. Seth Tuttle has scored 16.6 per game in league play after totaling 38 in his last two.
The senior forward has played particularly well against the Redbirds after finishing with 18 points and nine rebounds in a 72-59 home win Feb. 23 in the most recent meeting. He's also put up a combined 34 and 17 in his last two games in Normal.
Illinois State's Daishon Knight ranks second in the MVC with 16.1 points per game after scoring 20 for a third consecutive contest in Tuesday's 64-56 win at Drake. The senior guard has gone 15 for 27 from 3-point range in his last six.
Bobby Hunter scored 17 and Knight added 15 in a 76-65 victory over the visiting Panthers last February.
"(Knight) is playing so well," said Muller, whose team has won four of five. "I don't know if anyone in the league is playing better right now. He's been a rock for us."
Knight may have to run the point with Paris Lee likely a game-time decision after sitting out Tuesday because of a knee injury. While the Redbirds are second in the conference at 72.2 points per game, Muller has said his play options become slightly limited when Knight has to run the offense.
That could make things difficult against Northern Iowa, which has held opponents to 34.2 percent shooting - including 28.6 from beyond the arc - over its last five games.
Matt Bohannon has totaled 33 points while hitting 9 of 17 from long range in the past two matchups with the Redbirds.
Illinois State may have an advantage on the glass with a league-best plus-6.3 rebounding margin compared to Northern Iowa's plus-2.4. Reggie Lynch leads the Redbirds with 5.8 boards and a MVC-best 2.8 blocks per game.