No. 11 Northern Iowa won its 30th game of the season Sunday – and clinched a bid to the NCAA Tournament – by beating Illinois State, 69-60, in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship in St. Louis. The Panthers (30-3, 16-2) have now won 19 of their last 20 games.
Ranked 19th in the country in offensive field-goal percentage (48.3 percent) and fourth in scoring defense (54.3 points allowed per game), Northern Iowa has the makings of a team that could go on a deep tourney run.
“It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if they made the Sweet 16; it would be a surprise if they don’t,” Fox Sports 1 college basketball analyst Reid Forgrave said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “I call them the Virginia of the Valley because it’s a very similar style of basketball: pack-line defense, they really shut you down on D, but they’re also really, really efficient on offense.”
Seth Tuttle leads Northern Iowa with 15.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 61.6 percent shooting from the floor. Seven other Panthers average between 5.0 and 7.7 points per game.
Northern Iowa trailed Illinois State by 18 points before taking control with a 25-4 run in the second half.
“Even when they were down (double figures), I was like, ‘Okay, they’re going to win this. They’re just going to claw their way back,’” Forgrave said. “That Illinois State team did get really hot, just nailing three-pointers, especially in that first half coming off that big win over Wichita State. But the way Northern Iowa does it, it’s so systematic. It’s the type of winning that is easily replicated. It’s not like they’re hot or they’re cold. It’s like they’re always really, really solid.”
Lawrence feels the same way about No. 6 Wisconsin (28-3, 16-2), which destroyed No. 23 Ohio State, 72-48, on Senior Day in Columbus on Sunday. The Badgers still have an outside chance at a No. 1 seed.
“Kentucky, I think, is an obvious one, and I think Virginia is also an obvious one,” Forgrave said. “Duke is pretty close to obvious. Unless they get bounced in their first game in the ACC, I don’t see any way that they are not a 1-seed. So those three to me are the obvious ones. But fourth is probably Villanova from the Big East. They don’t have as many big-time wins, but they don’t have a single bad loss on their resume. And plus, to me, they pass the eye test. Wisconsin, in order to get that fourth one seed, I think they’d have to probably win the Big Ten title and Villanova would have to lose before the Big East title game.
“That said, 1-seed or a 2-seed, I think Wisconsin is the talk of college basketball (in terms of) who can beat Kentucky,” Forgrave continued. “If I’m going to pick one team that has what it takes – the team well-suited for that really, really tough task – it would be Wisconsin. Just the way that they are: very deliberate-paced, very experienced team. I don’t think they will, but I think they could be the team to beat Kentucky.”