Cedar Falls, IA (SportsNetwork.com) - The top two teams in the Missouri Valley Conference are each shooting for their 20th win on the season, as the 18th- ranked Northern Iowa Panthers host the 12th-ranked Wichita State Shockers at the McLeod Center on Saturday afternoon.
For UNI, which has won 13 straight home games, this is the first time it will compete in a contest where both programs are nationally ranked. Overall, the team has won eight consecutive outings and 10 of the last 11, with the lone defeat coming by three points (52-49) versus Evansville to start off the new year.
The Panthers most recently took down Southern Illinois on Wednesday night in a 59-52 final on the road, giving them nine total wins away from home, which is tied for the second-most nationally. The program also moved to 8-1 in conference play, which left it behind only WSU in the MVC standings entering the weekend.
Doing UNI one better in the consecutive wins department, the Shockers have ripped off nine straight and are undefeated in league play. The squad has won 15 of the last 16 outings overall, save for a Christmas Day setback to George Washington in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. Also in action on Wednesday, WSU posted a 58-47 win over Loyola at home in order to remain on top in the league standings.
Northern Iowa clings to a narrow 25-24 edge in the all-time series, although the Shockers have won six of the last seven matchups. The teams are also set to close out the regular season against each other four weeks from now in Kansas.
The Shockers forced 16 turnovers and kept the Ramblers from producing a single double-digit scorer earlier this week in a double-digit home win. Fred VanVleet led the offensive attack for Wichita State with 27 points, shooting 10-of-16 from the floor, including 4-of-7 behind the 3-point line. Ron Baker chipped in with 16 points as he too shot the ball well beyond the arc (3- of-6). Had the game been any closer the Shockers might have been concerned with their 40.7 percent accuracy from the floor and mere 6-of-14 shooting at the free-throw line, but that wasn't the case.
The MVC Preseason Player of the Year, VanVleet is one of three players scoring in double figures during conference play with his 11.0 ppg. He is shooting 52.3 percent from the field and is also a reliable source for offense at the free-throw line where he has made good on 81.5 percent of his attempts. In addition, the guard has issued 51 assists in nine starts, against only 14 turnovers. As a unit, the Shockers are turning the ball over less than eight times per game in conference, which goes a long way in providing the team with a scoring advantage of 16.7 ppg.
UNI actually trailed at the half against the Salukis, but that was before the Panthers put together a 22-3 scoring run in the second half to assume control and capture the seven-point road win in Carbondale. Seth Tuttle produced a double-double for the visitors with 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, his scoring output matched by Paul Jesperson who converted 3-of-4 shots out on the perimeter and 5-of-6 from the floor overall. Nate Buss pitched in with 11 points off the bench for a squad that made good on 52.6 percent from the field and got away with just three offensive rebounds.
When the Panthers are seeking a spark they almost always turn to Tuttle who, in conference play, leads the group in scoring (16.7 ppg), rebounding (7.4 rpg) and assists (26), leaving no stone unturned in an effort to keep the unit successful. Deon Mitchell (7.1 ppg) is the second-best scoring option believe it or not, thanks mostly to his 11-of-22 effort beyond the arc in those nine outings. However, as long as the Panthers are able to limit league foes to just 50.2 ppg on 35.6 percent shooting from the floor, the team won't need much more than Tuttle to get by.