This time of year the dream of multi-bid mid-major leagues is still abundant.
The Mountain West (hello, dominant San Diego State) and A-10 (Dayton, also hello) have made early statements, while the WCC has put itself in a nice position as well. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve held vigil for #2BidIvy and seen a lofty flirtation with at-large Vermont flame out.
The Missouri Valley still resides in that you-think-of-it-as-strong category of mid-major leagues, but it hasn’t gotten an at-large team since now-departed Wichita State landed an 11 seed in 2016. With its thrilling win at No. 24 Colorado on Tuesday night, Northern Iowa has at least given itself a chance and let the at-large dream flicker.
The frantic ending, which saw the Panthers score the final six points and get a game-winning steal from Spencer Haldeman, secured the last true marquee opportunity on UNI’s schedule.
You can watch the magic below:
This was undoubtedly a great win for the Panthers. It was their first over a non-league, ranked opponent in the regular season since knocking off No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Iowa State in 2015. Ben Jacobson talked to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier about what the win, and ensuing water fight, meant after the game.
“I got soaked, and that’s the best kind,” Jacobson said. “The guys know they accomplished something.
Did they accomplish enough to truly plant themselves on the early edges of the NCAA Tournament bubble?
Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast isn’t particularly rosy, currently giving the Panthers a 5.8 percent chance of securing an at-large bid in March. While that may not sound jump-out-of-your-seat promising, that number sat at 0.8 percent before the Colorado win, and is presently 12th-best among mid-major schools (and yes, that includes Gonzaga, SDSU, Utah State, Dayton and VCU).
It wasn’t that long ago that UNI was in a similar situation. That peak-and-valley start to the 2015-16 season saw the Panthers get those marquee wins against the Tar Heels and Cyclones before a 2-6 to conference play all but sunk their at-large chances. Ultimately they would be pushed into the NCAA Tournament by Wes Washpun’s heroics in the MVC Tournament title.
And, the resume this year would look a lot better had they closed off a game against West Virginia — which they controlled throughout — and didn’t have South Carolina and Old Dominions (two teams they’ve beaten) going through rough seasons.
Nonetheless, the thrilling finish in Boulder at least has the Panthers realistically in the at-large hunt as non-conference play wraps up. They won’t be helped by an MVC that has no other teams currently within the KenPom top 100, and Grand Canyon and Marshall as the only two non-league teams left on their schedule.
For a program that had taken a slight dip the past two seasons, Jacobson seems to have righted the ship with a team that has been more efficient offensively than in recent years. It could well be that AJ Green, Trae Berhow, Haldeman and Co. don’t need the benefit of an at-large come March, but at least they’ve put themselves at the table.