Northern Iowa in the spotlight preparing to face Wyoming
SEATTLE (AP) Now it's Northern Iowa's turn to carry the flag for the Missouri Valley Conference into the NCAA Tournament.
After Wichita State and Creighton received the spotlight in recent seasons, it's the fifth-seeded Panthers getting the attention this time around as they to face No. 12 Wyoming on Friday in an East Region matchup.
The Panthers (30-3) were the beneficiaries of all the attention focused on their Missouri Valley competitors in previous years. The Panthers were ranked as high as No. 10 in The Associated Press Top 25 this season because of their performance but also the high regard the Valley has earned.
''No question, the things that those two programs have done helped us this year. So people around the country understand the quality of play within our league,'' Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. ''The other thing it does is I think it drives your own guys. It motivates your own guys to want to get into that national spotlight, to want to get to rise up to that challenge and meet that challenge.''
Northern Iowa is back in the tourney for the first time since 2010, when the Panthers stunned the country by taking out No. 1 seed Kansas in the round of 32 and Ali Farokhmanesh became a household name. This time the Panthers are a favorite.
''We're our own team,'' UNI's Nate Buss said. ''We focus on how we play and we focus on our own legacy.''
Wyoming (25-9) needed to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament to reach the NCAAs, a point veteran coach Larry Shyatt drove home by having the Cowboys practice cutting down the nets at home before leaving for the conference tourney in Las Vegas.
The ploy worked as the Cowboys got into the tournament for the first time since 2002.
''Coach Shyatt's a very old-fashioned rule book type of guy. So he's just approaching this game like he would the regular season game against a conference team,'' Wyoming star Larry Nance Jr. said. ''It's been nothing but business since we found out our matchup with them, and we expect nothing but that.''
Other things to watch for when Northern Iowa faces Wyoming:
TUTTLE TIME: Seth Tuttle's hometown of Sheffield, Iowa, is so small, ''People an hour away from my hometown don't know where my hometown is.'' Didn't stop him from becoming a marquee big man. Tuttle was the MVC player of the year and did whatever that Panthers asked. Need him to score? He reached double figures in 29 of 33 games this season. Need a rebound? Tuttle averaged nearly seven per game. Need him to facilitate the Panthers' offense? He had 110 assists on the season. ''He's a terrific player on a terrific team, and I'm going to do my best individually to slow him down, but I know there's going to be four guys behind me ready to help,'' Nance said.
NANCE IS BACK: Nance missed four games in February due to illness and it took him a couple of games back to recover his rhythm. But for the past five games, Nance has gotten back to being the player that was a first-team all-Mountain West selection. Nance had 21 points in each of the final two regular season games, then had 20 points in the Cowboys' upset of top-seed Boise State in the MWC semifinals and 14 points in the title game. ''The way they use him makes him pretty hard to guard, pretty tough to game plan against,'' Tuttle said.
THREE FOR ALL: Tuttle is the focus of Northern Iowa's offense, but Northern Iowa also made nearly 40 percent of its 3-point attempts. Paul Jesperson and Matt Bohannon have made the most 3s for the Panthers, but neither scores more than six points per game.
FIRST TO 57: In keeping with the trend in college basketball this season of scoring being down, Northern Iowa and Wyoming have two of the better scoring defenses in the country. Northern Iowa was fourth best, giving up just 54.4 points per game. The Cowboys weren't far behind, allowing just 56 points per game, good for eighth. Northern Iowa allowed only three teams all season to reach the 70-point mark, while nineteen of Wyoming's past 20 opponents have failed to reach 70 points. In other words, don't expect the scoreboard to be lighting up. ''I would rather play somebody who plays a different style so that we have got some different things going on the other side of the ball,'' Jacobson said. ''That won't be the case tomorrow.''