N. Iowa-S. Illinois Preview
Even with a potential first-place showdown looming against the defending Missouri Valley Conference champion, Northern Iowa might not be looking ahead after struggling in the opener of a brief road swing.
The 18th-ranked Panthers will try to keep pace in the MVC with their eighth consecutive victory Wednesday night against a Southern Illinois team seeking its third straight home win.
Northern Iowa (18-2, 7-1) returns home Saturday to take on 12th-ranked Wichita State, which has won 26 straight league games, but should be focused heading into the back end of a two-game trip following Sunday's scare.
Trailing by 12 points with 10:48 left at Illinois State, the Panthers needed a 3-pointer from reserve Nate Buss with 5.1 seconds left to win 54-53 and remain a game behind the conference-leading Shockers.
"That's a great shot for us to get," said coach Ben Jacobson, whose team trailed late in the second half for a second straight game.
Seth Tuttle finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds as the Panthers won their seventh in a row. The MVC player of the week has averaged 19.7 points and 9.7 boards in the last three games.
The senior forward entered this week leading the MVC with 17.1 points per game in conference play, and he ranks among the national leaders in field-goal shooting at 61.1 percent. He's averaged 20.5 points and 10.3 boards in the past four meetings with the Salukis.
Tuttle matched a career high with 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting in a 55-39 home win over Southern Illinois on Jan. 7. Buss scored a season-high 15.
The Panthers rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense at 54.8 points per game and are among the top 20 in defensive field-goal percentage at 37.8. They held the Salukis (9-12, 2-6) to their second-lowest point total since 1950 and their worst shooting performance (29.5 percent) since 2011.
Anthony Beane, the team's leading scorer at 16.5 per game, missed all 10 of his field-goal attempts and had only one point. He averaged 15.7 points on 51.4 percent shooting in three 2013-14 meetings, and Southern Illinois won two of them.
Beane has averaged 18.3 points in his last three games, helping the Salukis win back-to-back home games before Saturday's 75-66 defeat at Evansville. Still, they clawed back from a 16-point deficit to get within three with 2:53 remaining.
"The first time we saw them, they were a really young team. Obviously, age-wise they're still the same, but now they've got some games under their belt and just playing with a lot more confidence," Jacobson said. "Beane was 0 for 10 at our place and (now) he's playing the way he would normally be playing. He's one of the best guards in our league at making shots and making plays for his team."
Jacobson's club generally relies on tenacious man-to-man defense, though his switch to a 1-2-2 zone Sunday played a key role in helping the team equal its best conference start through eight games.
"I think you have to be prepared for everything," SIU coach Barry Hinson said about facing Northern Iowa's defense. "... I think there will be some chess playing going on, but we don't have as many pieces of the chess set as they do."
Northern Iowa has lost its last two games at Southern Illinois, but the Salukis have dropped 12 straight versus ranked opponents, including a 67-55 loss at Wichita State on Jan. 14.