Now the race begins. Northern Iowa has reached the starting line for what should be one of the most exciting sprints to the finish in the Missouri Valley in the last 10 years.
All that was necessary to get there was a win over Wichita State on Saturday. The Panthers were not content with just a win though. They dominated Wichita State from the opening tip with impressive defense, rebounding and leadership from Seth Tuttle, on the way to a 70-54 win.
It was the first time in 31 tries that someone had been able to upend the Shockers. The last team to do it no longer plays in the Valley.
Previously anytime that Wichita State had been down, even by double digits, the Shockers had come back. They had made a game of things. But not Saturday, not against this Northern Iowa team.
It should have been apparent that this defense was going to give Wichita State fits. Just comparing the numbers coming into the game, Northern Iowa looked scary. They were limiting teams to ridiculously low scoring numbers that appeared to be out of the pre-shot clock era. They were generating turnovers. They were basically a brick wall in front of the rim.
But that hasn't stopped Wichita State in the past.
Northern Iowa took it a step further against the Shockers though. They exploited every weakness that Wichita State has.
Darius Carter is too much in the middle? The Panthers lured him into foul trouble and then held him to just 4-for-11 shooting from the floor. And so Wichita State was forced to go into that bench -- the Achilles Heel for a team that used to pride itself on its depth. Maybe in a couple of years, that bench will be something to worry about. Right now, the bench is something to be exploited. Combined they went 3-for-7 with Shaq Morris accounting for all three of those makes.
But two of those came on consecutive possessions in the first half, when Northern Iowa uncharacteristically left Morris alone on the weak side. Both time it led to alley-oop baskets on gorgeous feeds from Fred Van Vleet.
Yes, Wichita State can still be dangerous. They can still put on a show. But it no longer comes on every play, or with whatever combination of players happens to be on the floor. It takes a special combination to make things happen.
That's how you end up shooting just 35.4 percent from the floor, or 5-for-24 from 3-point range. Unlike on Wednesday night against Loyola, when Wichita State could easily grab offensive rebounds and took advantage of multiple second chance opportunities, the Shockers were stymied. Northern Iowa had allowed just two offensive rebounds by the Shockers until the final moments of the game, when it was all but finished in favor of the Panthers.
That was execution.
But it wasn't just the defense by Northern Iowa that was the difference. They found every seam in the Wichita State defense. They cut through the middle, they found openings on the outside, they beat the double team with smart passing.
And it all went through Tuttle, who was almost unstoppable. The senior, who may now be the leading candidate for player of the year in the conference, went 9-for-13 from the floor, and 10-for-13 at the free throw line on his way to 29 points. He added seven of the 26 Panther rebounds.
So much for being the focus of the Wichita State defense. The Shockers had no choice but to leave him mostly in the hands of a single defender for much of the game as Northern Iowa proved that anyone stepping on the floor could make their opponents pay.
Even when the bench cleared, there was no one that Wichita State could say, ‘Go ahead and try to beat us' to. Everyone scored and everyone looked unafraid of the Shockers.
And while Tuttle was the easy, obvious pick for player of the game, the unsung hero was probably the second best player for the Panthers all season, even though he comes in off the bench.
Wes Washpun had pockets of brilliance in the game, long minutes where he would dominate at both ends of the floor, breaking up players, and finishing with impressive flourishes on the other end that just accented the night for the Panthers' 6th man.
The junior finished with 16 points, on 5-for-10 shooting, while adding three rebounds, three assists and two steals for the Panthers.
Overall, Northern Iowa shot 60 percent from the floor, a number that seems unthinkable against Wichita State, who entered the game allowing a tick over 40 percent from the floor overall. Even more, the Panthers found a way to extend the defense and still get five of their seven threes to fall as Wichita State feared the effect of not dropping down into the lane and preventing the Panther forwards from dominating.
This race is about to begin, and Northern Iowa has made an impressive statement about how the rest of the season is going to play out. The Panthers have the new defense to be feared, possibly more than the Wichita State angry front. And they have the scoring chops to back it up, from any person on the floor.
By the time these teams cross the finish line, the Panthers could have the trifecta on their hands: a regular season title, a conference championship, and the MVC player of the year.
If you haven't been paying attention to Tuttle and Northern Iowa until now, you just got your wake-up call. The Panthers are just getting warmed up.