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Northern Iowa is making the Valley’s grandest statement

It’s been fueled by seniors and an unlikely freshman.

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NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis Championship-Villanova vs Northern Iowa Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If there was a coming party for Northern Iowa in 2017-18, it already happened.

Other than Arizona plummeting out of the rankings, the Panthers were the story of the Battle 4 Atlantis. They beat SMU — a top-30 KenPom team — and North Carolina State to get a shot at Villanova in the title game. And they battled the Wildcats, trailing by just one at halftime before fading in the second half.

UNI left the Bahamas with momentum, and kept it going Wednesday night in a 77-68 overtime win over previously unbeaten UNLV in the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge.

Should this past week have people rethinking the MVC pecking order?

It’s not as if UNI was an afterthought. The Panthers were picked second in the league’s preseason poll, as well as our own preseason power rankings, behind Missouri State. The Bears seemed to be the story of the post-Shockers Valley. Behind a first round NBA prospect in Alize Johnson, they had far more first place votes (30) than the Panthers (8).

But in just seven days, UNI has made a bolder statement than anyone in the league.

They’ve racked up three top-100 KenPom wins, while the rest of the conference has just four such wins combined. Their defense has been the 35th most efficient in the country, while their offense has been bolstered by a senior having a career year.

Bennett Koch poured in 30 points in the UNLV win, including a 10-for-13 performance from the free throw line. It was a career high, but it was equally notable because it came against the elite length and athleticism of Rebel freshman center Brandon McCoy. There were times late in the second half where Koch struggled against the McDonald’s All-American, but he hit a crucial post-jumper to draw UNI within one point with under a minute left in regulation.

Koch has flourished in a feature role. He’s posting an all-league caliber stat line thus far (17.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG) while being ruthlessly efficient as a low-post scorer. But he may not be the most important senior for UNI.

Klint Carlson also had a career scoring night against UNLV with 23 points. He was assertive late in the game after UNLV had turned a five-point halftime deficit into a four-point lead with under four minutes to go. After a passive showing in the Bahamas, Ben Jacobson was thrilled with what he saw Wednesday night.

“The guys kept going to Bennett — he was great — and then Klint, I just love the fact he took 22 shots,” Jacobson said. “He's been trying to fit in a little bit, trying to find his way offensively, so it's fun watching him take 22 shots. I thought it was great for him to be that aggressive.”

UNI has also gotten quality play from sophomore point guard Juwan McCloud (11.0 PPG, 2.5 APG), and an unexpected jolt from freshman Tywhon Pickford. The 6’4 wing is off to an incredible start (10.1 PPG), and is unexpectedly wreaking havoc on the glass. He currently leads the MVC in rebounds per game (11.1 RPG), and is third in defensive rebounding percentage (24.8%) and fourth in offensive rebounding percentage (12.1%).

That tenacity showed up in a key spot against UNLV, as he flew past a weak box out attempt to grab an offensive rebound and lay it in with under three minutes left in overtime. That Pickford is contributing right away is not a surprise to his high school coach.

He is considered a recruiting sleeper because of a left knee injury that halted his junior season and much of his recruiting. He has recovered from that injury, a torn meniscus.

“He’s extremely under the radar,” Maple Grove Coach Nick Schroeder told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in January. “Every college coach I talk to says somebody is going to get a steal.”

Despite the great week, it didn’t have any impact on the MVC standings, nor will it matter in St. Louis in March. But with Missouri State already dropping a pair of winnable games and Loyola Chicago getting blown out in its first real test against Boise State, the Panthers are looking pretty attractive right now.

They’ll look to continue the momentum over the next three weeks with home games against UT Arlington and Xavier, and a meeting with Iowa State in Des Moines.