Peoria, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - Back in the Top-25 after a short absence, the 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers continue their run through the Missouri Valley Conference, as they close out a two-game road trip with Tuesday's showdown against the Bradley Braves at Carver Arena.
Ben Jacobson's Panthers opened the season with nine straight wins and forged their way into the national polls as a result of a strong start. The team dropped its first game at VCU (93-87 2OT) back on Dec. 13 and then fell out of the poll with a New Year's Day loss at Evansville (52-49). However, UNI has won three games since then and is coming off a 64-40 rout of Drake last Saturday.
Geno Ford's Braves have struggled this season and come into this contest with a mere 6-11 overall record. The struggles have carried over to league play as well, where Bradley sits at just 1-3 following back-to-back losses to powerhouse Wichita State (63-43) and most recently, Evansville (66-56). Still, all six of Bradley's wins have come at Carver Arena this season.
Bradley holds a 28-24 series advantage over Northern Iowa, but the Panthers have closed the gap with wins in eight of the last 10 meetings.
Strong defensive play is what fuels the Panthers' attack this season. Northern Iowa ranks first in the MVC in both scoring defense (55.4 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (.385). The scoring defense is even more impressive in league play where UNI is limiting opponents to a meager 47.4 ppg. Offensively, the team puts up a modest 66.2 ppg, but it comes on a highly efficient .485 shooting. Senior forward Seth Tuttle has been a picture of consistency, converting 63.5 percent from the floor, while topping the team in scoring (14.4 ppg), rebounding (5.9 rpg) and assists (3.1 apg). Junior guard Wes Washpun (10.1 ppg) is the only other Panther with a double-digit scoring average.
The Panthers used a 32-2 run spanning the end of the first half into the second half and effectively put the game out of reach against Drake last time out. Sophomore Jeremy Morgan led the way with 15 points. Senior Deon Mitchell tied his season-high with 14 points and Tuttle finished with 12 points and four assists in the win.
Evansville was simply the more efficient squad last time out against Bradley as the Purple Aces shot a sizzling .533 from the floor compared to a mere .321 effort for the Braves in what turned into a 10-point loss for Bradley. Omari Grier came off the bench to lead the Braves in scoring with 15 points. Tramique Sutherland added 12 points and Josh Cunningham just missed a double- double with 10 points and nine rebounds in the setback.
Offensive proficiency has been something the struggling Braves have lacked all season long. The team enters this contest averaging just 58.1 ppg, while shooting a lackluster .379 from the field. Some of that has to do with the loss of leading scorer Warren Jones (13.7 ppg) to a fractured foot. Jones has played in just nine games this season and has missed the last eight. Sutherland (12.5 ppg), Auston Barnes (10.8 ppg) and Grier (9.8 ppg) have tried to fill the void. A 2014 NJCAA All-American, Sutherland missed the first nine games this season with a fractured finger, but has made up for lost time since returning to the court.