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Moving right along: A first look at the Northern Iowa Panthers

The plane leaves tomorrow night.  Here's what we know about the Panthers:

  • Overall record of 30-4.  Conference record of 15-3.  Won both regular season and conference tournament titles in Missouri Valley Conference.
  • Quality (KenPom top 100) wins: Iowa State, Siena, Missouri State (twice), Illinois State (twice), Old Dominion, Wichita State, UNLV, THE #1 RANKED AND TOP-OVERALL-SEEDED UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS JAYHAWKS.
  • Bad All losses: DePaul, Wichita State, Bradley, Evansville.
  • Common opponent: Iowa.  UNI beat the Hawkeyes by 17 at home.  Michigan State beat Iowa by 18 on the road and 7 at home.  (Pish posh.  Small sample size.)
  • KenPom rating of #25 (they've just now inched ahead of MSU).  #55 on offense; #15 on defense.
  • Good depth: 9 players average more than 10 minutes per game.
  • Coached by Ben Jacobson, who took over for previous head coach Greg McDermott when McDermott left for Iowa State in 2006 after guiding UNI to 3 straight NCAA Tournament bids.  This is the Panthers' second consecutive NCAA appearance under Jacobson; last year, they lost to Purdue in the first round, 61-56.

Here's a statistical capsule for the five Panther starters (sorry, I don't have a pronunciation guide):

Player Height Weight Year Min/G Pts/G OffRtg Poss% 2pt% 3pt% FT% Oreb% Dreb% Ast/G TO/G Blk/G Stl/G
Kwadzo Ahelegbe 6'2" 200 Jr 29.5 10.6 89.9 27.4 .387 .348 .732 1.9 11.5 2.8 2.9 0.1 0.8
Ali Farokhmanesh 6'0" 190 Sr 30.3 9.7 113.5 16.7 .414 .378 .865 1.0 5.3 1.1 0.8 0.0 0.7
Johnny Moran 6'1" 190 So 26.4 5.6 95.5 15.7 .443 .276 .829 3.5 12.6 1.5 1.2 0.0 1.1
Adam Koch 6'8" 255 Sr 25.1 11.6 110.6 27.0 .511 .353 .842 6.8 18.4 1.4 2.0 0.3 0.6
Jordan Eglseder 7'0" 280 Sr 21.6 12.0 113.3 30.7 .544 .250 .736 15.7 27.7 0.6 1.2 0.9 0.4

(Went with rebounding percentage, rather than per-game, numbers to show what a beast Eglseder is on the boards.)

This is a deep, balanced, veteran team.  But their offensive numbers don't exactly leap off the page.  That's partly a function of the fact UNI plays the game of basketball at a glacially slow pace--59 possessions per game.  That's good for 3rd slowest in the country.  Even Wisconsin plays with (slightly) more hop in their step than these guys do.

Like Wisconsin, the Panthers' clear offensive strength is taking care of the ball. They've turned it over on just 18.0% of possessions this season.  Beyond that, UNI has a pretty run-of-the-mill offensive profile.  Ali Farokhmanesh is a pretty good 3-point shooter (as anyone who watched the game against Kansas knows), but the Panthers make a routine 35.6% of shots from beyond the arc as a team.  Jordan Eglseder scores proficiently around the basket and grabs missed shot with abandon (ranking 10th nationally in offensive rebounding %), but the team only makes 47.5% of 2-point attempts and grabs 32.2% of missed shots collectively.

UNI hits their free throws when they get to the line, ranking 7th in the nation in FT% at 76.1%, but they don't get to the line that often, ranking just 193rd in free throw rate.  In other words: Don't swipe at the ball.

Most of the UNI offense runs through their post guys.  Eglseder gobbles up possessions with his combination of height, bulk, and funky post moves, and Adam Koch is pretty assertive with the ball, as well.  Kwadzo Ahelegbe is an oddity: A player who takes up 27% of his team's offensive possessions while he's on the floor while posting an offensive rating well below the 100 mark (89.9).  Forcing him to drive the lane with the shot clock running down seems like a good strategy, as he's made just 38.7% of his 2-point attempts this season.

Farokhmanesh is, on paper at least, the only real threat to put up big scoring numbers from the outside for the Panthers.  And he's done that very well thus far in NCAA Tournament play, scoring 33 points on 9-19 three-point shooting over the opening weekend.  The Spartan guards will want to keep close tabs on him.

Despite the fact that UNI beat Kansas by putting up 69 points in a 62-possession game, defense has been their calling card for the most of the season.  The Panthers held 14 of their 18 MVC opponents below a point per possession.  Again, they bear an eerie similarity to our friends in Madison, ranking 22nd in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to grab just 28.0% of their misses.  Eglseder also leads the way on the defensive glass, ranking 6th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.  UNI also bears a quality that Bo Ryan teams of past years were known for: They don't foul.  UNI's opponent's FTR ranks 15th nationally.

The Panthers rarely block shots (ranking just 294th nationally in team block%), but they do a good job forcing tough shots inside the arc, holding opponents to a 2-point shooting percentage of 44.7%.  And UNI opponents recorded assists on just 44.2% of made field goals, indicating the Panthers are going to man you up and make you beat them one on one.

UNI is a bigger team that I was expecting.  They have a 3-guard lineup, but their post players are of the full-sized variety.  The Panthers feature three players that are at least 6'8" in their regular rotation and four players that weigh at least 255 pounds.  The bad news is that Draymond Green and Raymar Morgan--both of whom can initiate the offense more in Kalin Lucas' absence--won't have any size advantage at the 4 spot.  The good news is that Tom Izzo can use big lineups for most of the game.

With Lucas out and Chris Allen improving but still a unknown factor, MSU only has two healthy guards that have played regular minutes throughout the season: Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers.  Izzo will be able to rotate Derrick Nix, Garrick Sherman, and Delvon Roe (as long as his knee holds up) regularly at the 5 spot, leaving Green to man the 4 and Morgan to play the 3.  Morgan should then have a size advantage against one of the Panther guards on offense, but will need to play solid perimeter defense on the other end.

I'll stop there for now.  Big picture, this is a game in which MSU, despite the absence of its best player, will still enjoy a positive talent differential.  But it's also a game that will severely test the ability of a short-handed and banged up group of Spartans to play disciplined basketball for 40 minutes.

KenPom is now predicting a 60-59 Northern Iowa win on Friday night in a 59-possession game.  Despite MSU's injury situation, the guys in Vegas think it's the Spartans by a point or so.