Injuries have taken the bite out of the best opening game in the Missouri Valley. But that doesn't mean that there won't be a lot to watch as Northern Iowa and Wichita State square off in a meaningful early conference matchup.
Darn you Cleanthony Early. How dare you get in the way of Carl Hall in practice?
Yes, we kid, but that little practice mishap has harmed the best opening matchup in the Missouri Valley. Northern Iowa and Wichita State has lost a little of that pizazz.
That the Shockers have resembled more of an emergency ward than a basketball team lately doesn't make things better. Injuries have slowed the momentum Wichita State had to begin the season.
From a high in the top 10 of the computer rankings, the Shockers have dropped back into the 20s. They are still a top team in the country, but they live on the edge given the loss of their best player for a month.
This drop wasn't all the result of a singular loss to Tennessee. This was a result of the offense not looking as smooth over the last month. This has been a result of running into competition actually worthy of the Shockers.
It has put the throttle on what was a fast start by a team that needed a fast start to prove that it could continue to win with a brand new cast of characters.
Yes, we were wrong when we tried to take the air out of the balloon of expectations that carried this team to start the season. The Shockers have the talent and depth to actually contend in the Valley. The games against Creighton are going to be classics as they two teams battle for the conference title.
But that still requires a good start, one that could be difficult tonight against Northern Iowa.
The Panthers were outmatched in Atlantis. They were not leaving with a win. The Panthers were outmatched against Iowa and UNLV. The Panthers have been outmatched against every top team they ave played this season.
And before Northern Iowa fans get out of joint, St. Mary's is not yet a top team, as they are still finding an identity without Rob Jones in the middle of the paint.
What will be on stage tonight though is the balanced attack that the Panthers bring to play, something they will need to counteract the one of the stingiest defenses in the country. Northern Iowa can't afford to fall in love with one player controling the ball. They need everyone from Seth Tuttle to Deon Mitchell to Jake Koch to handle the ball and score.
This will be easier without Hall in the middle of the Shocker defense. Early hasn't exactly shown that he is ready to shoulder all of the paint protection yet.
So Koch and Tuttle should take notice now -- attacking together and as a pair will be more effective than trying to take the burden all on their own.
Two more things to watch tonight as the Valley shakes:
- Wichita State is not a ball control team. They turn the ball over on more than 20 percent of their possessions and that could be turned into a strong transition attach for Northern Iowa -- if the Panthers can get hands onto the ball. They are not a face-up defensive squad and have one of the worst steal rates in the country. If for some reason UNI gets a little handsy Sunday night, this game could change in a hurry.
- Northern Iowa is great at drawing fouls especially within the paint. And the Shockers, despite strong a strong defensive team, don't have the discipline to stay away from smacking your arm now and again, and again, and again. The Panthers could quickly turn the advantage by concentrating their offense to the inside and getting Early and the Shocker bigs into foul trouble early. In fact, this will be the quickest way to turn the tide for the Panthers, and give them the best chance of winning this one.
This is by no means a call for an upset here, only that Northern Iowa will have its best chance at getting one in this game because of the injury issues of Wichita State.
This is the perfect storm for the Panthers, one that they can only take advantage of if they can play directly into middle of the Shockers stingy defense.
It could be all going Wichita State's way and then turn suddenly, and you won't even notice why. That is how fragile this Wichita team is right now, especially against the top of the Valley.
Tonight, the Valley shakes. It is just a question of who can avoid the cracks in their facade the best.