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Missouri Valley Conference Preview: No. 12 Wichita State Shockers vs. No. 18 Northern Iowa Panthers

Maybe the biggest game in the Missouri Valley Conference in the last few years takes place Saturday when Wichita State and Northern Iowa face off for first place in the league. Will the Panthers have enough to unseat the Shockers from the top of the standings?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 Wichita State (19-2, 9-0) at No. 18 Northern Iowa (19-2, 8-1)

When

4 p.m. Eastern, Jan. 31, 2015

Where

McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Television

ESPN2

Broadcast Team

Rich Hollenberg, Mark Adams

Streaming

WatchESPN.com

Radio

KEYN 103.7 FM (Wichita); KXEL 1540 AM (Iowa); Sirius XM 91

The most interesting thing about the Wichita State win over Loyola on Wednesday night was not the outcome, but the interview with Gregg Marshall on the post game show. ESPN was gracious enough to stick around with their stream long enough to hear Marshall speak about the game against Northern Iowa.

He didn't hint to much about the game plan against the Panthers. But what was most striking was how much scoreboard watching that it appears Marshall does. Last season, you had the feeling that he didn't care about any other team in the conference, let alone the league. His team was the only thing that mattered, along with the game plan to defeat the next opponent.

But here was Marshall, right on top of where the Panthers were sitting in the league -- exactly one game behind the Shockers, and poised to take the conference lead with a win on Saturday. He knows what is at stake Saturday. And he has a keen eye on the team that has the best chance to unseat the Shockers atop the league.

This game has the opportunity to be the biggest game for the Missouri Valley Conference in years. Here are two ranked teams, both with a trajectory towards the NCAA Tournament in March, and they get to showcase what the league stands for on the basketball court.

It also serves as a chance for Northern Iowa to really show what they are made of. The Panthers may be ranked, but there is still a feeling out there at they don't belong in the Top 25 despite their record. But a win over Wichita State -- something that no team from the Valley has been able to do in their last 27 tries -- would go a long way toward changing that perception.

THE MATCHUP

Wichita State Shockers

Northern Iowa Panthers

Pos.

Name

DEF/100

HW30

Pos.

Name

DEF/100

HW/30

G*

Fred Van Vleet

10.8

8.6

F*

Seth Tuttle

14.4

8.2

G*

Ron Baker

11.7

6.5

G*

Deon Mitchell

10.6

1.7

G*

Tekele Cotton

9.5

2.6

G*

Jeremy Morgan

10.2

0.6

G*

Evan Wessel

8.4

-0.25

F*

Marvin Singleton

8.7

0

F*

Darius Carter

13.2

5.0

G*

Matt Bohannon

2.7

-3.2

F

Rashard Kelly

7.8

-0.5

G

Wes Washpun

14.2

4.5

F

Shaquille Morris

0

-0.6

F

Nate Buss

5.4

0.2

F

Tevin Glass

5.6

1.5

G

Paul Jesperson

3.5

-1.0

THREE THINGS

1.  The outcome of this game depends on Darius Carter: Yes, it could be that simple. If Darius Carter's back is 100 percent, and if he can stay on the floor against Northern Iowa, Wichita State has its best chance to win this game. Carter has emerged this season in a way that was unexpected. He was good last season. He is all-conference this year, and has personally won a few games for the Shockers this year. But it isn't just what he provides when he is on the floor that is important (and that includes his defense, the best on the team this season, and one of the top three last year), it is what he prevents. He stops Gregg Marshall from having to go to his bench and pull one of the freshman onto the court. While Shaquille Morris was splendid on the boards against a smaller Loyola team, he also didn't show the discipline to stay out of foul trouble and stay on the court when Carter was in foul trouble. Rashard Kelly can't hold onto the ball, although if he could, he can shoot. And Tevin Glass is still working his way into the rotation while he works on being effective defensively. So if Carter can play, the Shockers have a big advantage as they try to stop Seth Tuttle and score inside.

2.  Who will support Seth Tuttle offensively: Here is a little secret about the Northern Iowa Panthers; they may be better than Wichita State defensively this season. They have multiple players who are right now worth more than 14 points on defense as measured by DEF/100, a number that is basically unheard of especially for multiple players on a team. That gives them the edge because as we saw against Loyola, Wichita State can be forced to miss. And the advantage that Northern Iowa has is that they are not as short as the Ramblers. They have the ability to rebound and not allow the Shockers as many second chance points as they got on Wednesday. But what is really important is who will support Seth Tuttle when he is the focus of the still stout Wichita State defense. No other player is scoring in double figures for the Panthers. Someone will have to step up to be that scorer. On the plus side, the Panthers have a number of players that can fill that role, even on down into the bench, where they have gotten some impressive production this season. It could be the combination of players that does it, but someone is going to have to exceed their average against Wichita State. Otherwise, this is going to be a long afternoon.

3.  There is probably no bigger game for the conference than this: In previous seasons, a lot has been made of the matchups between two Missouri Valley teams, but nothing compares to this. Not when Wichita State used to face Creighton. Not when Wichita State faced Evansville last season. Not anything. This is the big chance for the league to make a statement about the quality of basketball that can be played in the conference. People will be watching to see what the next best team can do against the Shockers, so Northern Iowa has a lot of pressure in this one. They will be wanting to see it as the Missouri Valley takes the next step in becoming a perennial multiple bid conference, like the Atlantic 10, or West Coast Conference, and building that persona of a league that is on the verge of not being considered mid-major. It also means that there is pressure on Wichita State to show that last season is not a fluke. The Shockers lost a lot of talent from that team, but they need to prove that they can restock the cupboard just like the major conference squads. So, yes, a lot is riding on this game. It is probably unfair for everyone to make that demand from this contest, but this will still serve as a measuring stick for basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference.

PREDICTION:

Northern Iowa's defense is much improved this year, and despite its gaffe against Evansville, they still look to be ready to take down Wichita State.

We are going with the Panthers, in overtime:

Northern Iowa 65, Wichita State 62