Relying on outstanding defense, Northern Iowa has surged through the first two months of the season with little notice. The Panthers, though, are finally getting the attention they likely deserve.
In the Top 25 for the second time in school history, the 20th-ranked Panthers look to extend a 15-game winning streak when they face Wichita State on the road Tuesday night.
Northern Iowa (16-1, 7-0 Missouri Valley Conference) made it to the NCAA tournament last season by winning the conference tournament, losing 61-56 to Purdue in the first round. Still, the Panthers needed two months and a long winning streak this season to break into the Top 25 for the first time since being ranked for three weeks in 2006.
Since a 60-52 loss to DePaul on Nov. 20, Northern Iowa has put together one of the nation’s longest winning streaks. The last time the Panthers started 16-1 was 1963-64, when they went on to win 19 of 20 en route to a 23-4 finish.
In its latest contest, Northern Iowa held Indiana State to 27.3 percent shooting in a 62-40 victory Saturday.
The Panthers rank third in the nation in scoring defense, holding teams to 54.9 points per game. They’re even better in MVC contests, surrendering an average of 51.0 points.
Northern Iowa has held four league opponents to less than 50 points.
Continuity seems to have helped the Panthers maintain their success after going 23-11 last season. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson has used the same starting lineup for 30 straight games.
Senior forward Adam Koch leads the Panthers with 13.1 points per game and is shooting 48.5 percent from 3-point range. He reached 1,000 career points by scoring 13 against Indiana State.
Koch is one of 12 Northern Iowa players with at least 1,000 points and 500 rebounds. He had 17 points in the Panthers’ 69-61 loss to Wichita State on Feb. 14, the teams’ last meeting.
Northern Iowa, winner of three straight and seven of eight against the Shockers (16-3, 5-2), leads the series 21-17.
Koch is complemented in the frontcourt by 7-foot senior Jordan Eglseder, who averages 12.6 points and a MVC-high 8.5 rebounds. Eglseder is also a critical part of the Panthers’ defense, giving them an imposing presence in the post and a significant height advantage over most MVC teams.
Wichita State, though, has its own 7-footer in Garett Stutz. He has made strides as a sophomore, averaging 7.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game off the bench, but the Shockers start 6-7 junior J.T. Durley at center.
Wichita State had a 40-32 edge on the boards against Creighton on Saturday, but lost 57-56 after winning its previous five. The Shockers shot 36.5 percent in their first defeat since Dec. 29.
“You’ve just got to play much better than that,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.
The Shockers have been excellent at home, outscoring opponents by an average of 19.2 points in winning all 11 games there this season and 20 of 21. That stretch includes an 85-83 victory over then-No. 16 Texas Tech on Dec. 19.