PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—Ben Jacobson isn’t going to sell his Northern Iowa Panthers any delusions for a first-round upset of Purdue. That means no inspirational talk of Cinderellas, bracket-busters or Hoosiers.
“That isn’t a card, if you will, that I’d play with our guys,” the coach said. “Our guys know what they’re about. They know what they’re made of. They don’t need me to tell them what they’re up against.”
The 12th-seeded Panthers (23-10) will go into Thursday’s game against the fifth-seeded Boilermakers (25-9) grounded in reality.
Northern Iowa failed to make even the NIT the past two seasons, and was picked to finish sixth in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Panthers met that expectation by starting the season 6-6.
But then Northern Iowa took off on an 11-game winning streak. The Panthers lost just four games after the first of the year and capped the season with a 60-57 overtime victory over Illinois State to win the MVC tournament title.
So while they have dismissed the doubters and get the added bonus of momentum, coach Jacobson was guarding his team against dreams of an headline-grabbing upset. He was putting the focus on old-fashioned hard work.
“It doesn’t mean that we get to win just because we’re the 12 and people like to talk about it, you know?” he said. “We’re going to have to play a very good basketball team and we know what we’re up against.”
Since 2001, No. 12 seeds have defeated No. 5 seeds in 13 of 32 games.
“I think it just shows the parity through the years,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter, “that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the five and the 12.”
The 17th-ranked Boilermakers defeated Ohio State 65-61 on Sunday to claim the Big Ten Conference championship and earn the automatic berth.
The conference tournament title was a boost for Purdue, which lost three of its final four regular-season games. The Boilermakers even held a special meeting to address concerns.
“We were definitely struggling coming into that weekend,” forward Robbie Hummel said. “But I think we played really well in the Big Ten tournament. I really felt like we were playing well as a team and doing everything we needed to win.
Hummel missed several games this season with a hairline fracture in his lower back, but he returned to full strength in time for the conference tournament, where he averaged 16.0 points and 9.3 rebounds. He was named the tourney’s most outstanding player.
He is one of Purdue’s three super sophomores, along with JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. None of the seniors start.
Toward the end of the regular season, the Boilermakers lost focus, the players said. But the meeting helped them regain it just in time.
“We were playing a little sloppy sometimes, playing a little out of control,” Moore said. “So we needed to focus, tighten it down, play basic fundamental basketball and just do the basic necessary things to win.”
Purdue is in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, having lost in the second round the last two seasons. In 22 previous appearances, the Boilermakers have gone 29-22.
The closest Purdue has come to a national title was in 1969, when the Boilermakers lost to UCLA in the final, 92-72.
The key for Northern Iowa will be scoring against Purdue’s aggressive defense. The Boilermakers are 11th nationally in field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to .389.
Purdue is limiting its opponents to 59.1 points a game, and they have held foes to under 40 percent shooting in 21 of 34 games.
“They really get after it and are aggressive on the defensive end of the floor,” Northern Iowa forward Adam Koch said. “I think one of the nice things for us is some of the teams we played this year and in the past have had a similar style. So it’s something we’ve gone up against—but at the same time we know they’re going to be at us on the defensive end.”
Northern Iowa made three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament from 2004-06 under former coach Greg McDermott, losing in the opening round by five points each time.
The Panthers have won one NCAA Division I tournament game in their history, shocking third-seeded Missouri 74-71 in 1990.
Purdue and Northern Iowa have never before played.
Hummel seemed appeared resigned to the fact that the pre-game talk was going to focus on the possibility of an upset.
“I guess we’re in the range of teams where upsets do happen,” he said. “But I think we’re focused and we’re going to do everything in our power not to let that happen.”