Evansville, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - The 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers and Evansville Purple Aces will ring in the New Year on Thursday evening, as the two teams open up Missouri Valley Conference play at the Ford Center.
Ben Jacobsen's Panthers have forged their way into the polls thanks to wins in 11 of their first 12 games this season. Northern Iowa's lone loss came in double-overtime at VCU on Dec. 13 (93-87), but the Panthers have won two straight games since, topping Iowa (56-44) and most recently South Dakota State (74-63).
Marty Simmons' Purple Aces are also off to a strong start, entering this contest at an impressive 10-2. It marks the best start for the school since the 1988-89 campaign. Evansville has won three straight games entering this conference matchup, including Sunday's 85-80 shootout with Coppin State.
Evansville holds a slim 23-21 advantage in the all-time series with Northern Iowa. However, the Panthers swept a pair of games last year from the Purple Aces.
The Panthers are sitting in the Top-25 thanks to strong defensive efforts game-in and game-out. Northern Iowa ranks first in the MVC in both scoring defense (58.1 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (.395). The pressure at the defensive end makes a modest scoring total of 68.7 ppg hold up more often than not. Northern Iowa is shooting an efficient .486 from the field overall, including .382 from behind the arc. Senior forward Seth Tuttle has been an effective leader at both ends of the court. Tuttle is shooting over 62 percent from the floor and paces the team in both scoring (14.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.2 rpg). Junior guard Wes Washpun has exclusively come off the bench, but is also shooting over 60 percent from the floor (.603) and putting up 11.8 ppg.
Northern Iowa used a dazzling offensive performance to earn the 11-point win over South Dakota State last time out, as the Panthers used a 57.8 percent shooting effort to hold their foe at bay. UNI was 50-percent accurate in the first half and got better as the game wore on, converting 66.7 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes. Four Panthers notched double figures in the win, led by Nate Buss' 14 points. Washpun added 12 points, followed by Tuttle's 11 and Paul Jesperson's 10. Tuttle just missed a double-double with nine assists in the game.
The Purple Aces are sure to push UNI's defense to the max in this one, as Evansville is the top scoring team in the Missouri Valley Conference at an impressive 79.2 ppg (23rd nationally). A good portion of that production comes from one player in junior guard D.J. Balentine, who ranks first in the MVC and fifth nationally at a hefty 22.5 ppg. Junior center Egidijus Mockevicius is the perfect complement with his interior prowess, as the 6-10 center is converting 67.7 percent from the floor and averaging a double-double with 14.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
Evansville jumped all over Coppin State early, taking a 15-point lead into halftime (45-30), fueled by a 55.9-percent shooting clip in the first half. Every point was crucial, as the Purple Aces were able to fend off a strong second half by Coppin State to earn a five-point win. Overall, Evansville shot 53.7 percent from the field. Balentine was once again unstoppable, as he poured in 32 points, going 10-of-18 from the floor and 9-of-11 from the free- throw line. Mockevicius added a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while sophomore swingman Blake Simmons checked in with 13 points in the win.