A little more than two weeks ago, if you had taken a long look at the Northern Iowa Panthers, you would have been scratching your head. They held wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, and yet were just 1-2 in the Valley.
With a 74-55 loss to Wichita State on Wednesday night, the Panthers have fallen to 2-5 after three straight losses, and you can thank the Shockers for laying bare all of the faults of UNI.
Wichita State controlled the paint and the baseline during the game, exploiting the biggest weakness of Northern Iowa: their interior defense. The loss of Seth Tuttle patrolling the middle has certainly been felt lately, and this season overall.
Take a look at the numbers at the rim last season, and this season, and it becomes clear. Last year, Northern Iowa held opponents to just 57.5 percent shooting at the rim, and 34.2 percent on 2-point jump shots. They blocked 10.6 percent of close attempts, and possessed one of the best scoring defenses in the country.
This year is another story. The Panthers have slipped to allowing 62.2 percent shooting at the rim, and discarding shots that are blocked, it goes up to 67.1 percent. Their block percentage is down to 7.2 percent, and even their jumper defense is down, to where opponents are scoring on 41.7 percent of 2-point jumpers.
The interior just isn't there, and you could see Wichita State take advantage. With Northern Iowa concentrating on stopping Fred Van Vleet up top with double teams, the rest of the Wichita State team was able to set up down low for the point guards expert passing. At least a couple of times in the opening half, the Panthers cheated up on defense, leaving the lane wide open for a driving guard. And if that wasn't enough the kick out to one of the big men was wide open to score.
Wichita State's bench had one of its best games of the season as a result, led by Markis McDuffie, who continued a fabulous freshman campaign when he can get extended minutes. McDuffie scored 15 points, and went 3-for-5 behind the arc, while grabbing three rebounds and adding two steals.
Shaq Morris was effective outside of the opening minutes of the game and scored in double-digits for the first time since the Shockers faced Bradley after the turn of the year.
Van Vleet ended with six assists and closed the game with two long-distance threes that made the final score look worse than maybe Northern Iowa deserved for as soft as the defense was. Ron Baker led the way with 21 points, and three assists of his own.
But the real story was Northern Iowa's inability to shut down Wichita State for extended periods. The Panthers actually had some decent success when the tempo sped up after the half. With the team running, they did a better job of reacting and closing off the path to the basket. But as soon as Wichita State took a timeout to stop a short Northern Iowa run, they slowed the game back to their pace, and the interior reopened.
Wes Washpun tried to will Northern Iowa back into the game, but was stifled as he tried to drive inside and finished just 4-for-13 from the floor, with 14 points. Bennett Koch was plagued by foul trouble, and despite 14 points, was unable to make an impact for long on the floor. Eventually the short bench for Northern Iowa became an even bigger problem as Koch fouled out with nine minutes left, and left the Panthers severely short handed.
The Shockers improved to 7-0 in the league, and maintained their one-game lead over Southern Illinois, who beat Indiana State on Wednesday night, and Evansville. Northern Iowa fell to 7th in the league, and despite holding the most impressive wins in the league, look to be falling out of contention this season.