Northern Iowa vs. Wichita St. Preview: Battle of the Highly Ranked Mid-Majors

Northern Iowa and Wichita State are in the top 12 in both the AP and Coaches rankings. How will their game unfold on Saturday?

On Saturday, two mid-majors that have managed to crack the top 11 of the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll square off with the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular season crown on the line.

The nationally televised, ESPN Gameday-hyped battle pits the upstart number-10 ranked Northern Iowa Panthers (who are 27-2 on the season and 16-1 in MVC play) against the more well-known Wichita State Shockers (26-3, 16-1 MVC) in Wichita, Kansas. While it may not have the history or sizzle of Duke-North Carolina, this game figures to be a good barometer for how far these teams can go in March.

The first meeting of the two teams resulted in Northern Iowa's holding serve at home, routing the Shockers 70-54 behind a performance from Seth Tuttle (29 points and 7 rebounds) that Shockers coach Gregg Marshall called "unstoppable".

According to our metrics, both teams come in fairly evenly matched, even if the Panthers hold the edge in the polls.

TeamnERDO Rating PercentileD Rating Percentile
N. Iowa11.5091.392.6
Wichita St.13.7795.795.9

While the teams both are very strong on both the offensive and defensive ends, Wichita State ranks higher (16th) in our power rankings. The Panthers are ranked 29th. Both teams also play fairly a fairly slow pace, as the Shockers play faster than only 9.5% of NCAA teams, while the Panthers play even slower with a pace percentile of 0.4%, meaning not many teams play the game slower.

Strengths of Each Team

The Panthers average 65.3 points per game, which ranks just 224th in the nation. However, they are particularly strong defensively. They rank fourth in the nation, allowing a stingy 53.9 points per game. Additionally, the Panthers are also a pretty solid shooting team. Their field goal percentage ranks 14th overall (48.5%), and they aren't much worse shooting the three pointer at 39.8%, ranking 18th nationally.

The offense flows through the 6'8" senior forward Tuttle, who has nifty post moves and is adept at putting the ball on the floor as well. Tuttle is the only player who averages double figures for the Panthers, averaging 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game (20.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per 40 minutes) while shooting a ridiculous 62.7% from the floor.

The Shockers average 70.3 points per game (102nd in the country) and allow a 10th-ranked 55.7 points per game. For a team only two years removed from a Final Four appearance and a year removed from being an undefeated 1 seed heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Shockers strength is in their experienced backcourt. In fact, the three-headed backcourt of junior Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton, and point guard Fred VanVleet rarely turn the ball over, as the Shockers rank 15th in the country in fewest turnovers and rank 14th in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Baker is their star and rebounds well for a 6'3" guard as well, averaging 15.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game (18.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per 40 minutes) and VanVleet is a true pass-first point guard, averaging 12.4 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game (16.4 points, 7.0 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per 40 minutes).

While Cleanthony Early is now playing in the NBA, senior forward Darius Carter provides solid scoring up front as well in limited minutes, averaging 11.5 points and 5.4 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game, which translates to 21.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per 40 minutes. Carter's play on Saturday against Tuttle will be paramount to the Shockers chances of winning, as Carter must make Tuttle work on both ends.

Game Analysis

While Northern Iowa rebounded well to avenge its only conference loss to Evansville on Wednesday night, that game was at home, and Wichita State is a tough place to play. Both teams have very few weaknesses (hence no section in this article on it), and the game, which will be at a slow pace, should be incredibly efficient and fun to watch.

Premium subscribers should check back later for our game game projections, but I'll go out on the limb and say that the experienced backcourt of the Shockers and playing at home should lead them to victory on Saturday.

Tournament Prospects

Let's be honest, most of you will watch this game to get your first glimpse of both teams in an attempt to see how far these teams will potentially go in the NCAA Tournament. Our bracketology has Northern Iowa getting a 3 seed with the Shockers currently as a 5 seed.

The big question, of course, is how far these teams can go. Northern Iowa's 2010 team upset Kansas and lost in the Sweet 16. Many members of the 2013 Wichita State team that made the Final Four are still on the team. The Shockers should be hungry to rebound from their second-round exit as a 1 seed against a ridiculously underseeded 8 seed Kentucky last season. The MVC also had strong showings in 2012 and 2013 from Creighton who left to join the Big East.

From a conference perspective, it doesn't matter who wins this game in terms of how dangerous both teams are in the NCAA Tournament. Both are very scary matchups, as both are experienced teams. Northern Iowa will go as far as Tuttle and their three point shooting will take them. The Panthers have 84 wins in the past four years, and they certainly show the ability to go to the Sweet 16 if their opponent matchups are favorable.

We already know that the Shockers ceiling is at minimum a Final Four if a few things go their way. Experienced backcourts tend to be a huge asset come March, and the Shockers have that in spades.

Either way, we will enjoy seeing what happens on Saturday, in the MVC conference tournament, and when the brackets are announced.