The Fast Break(down): UNI hoops vs Wichita State

Panthers head to Koch Arena to face the No. 24 Shockers; face tall task to win sixth straight

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The losing streak that plagued January seems long gone for the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team, but it isn’t forgotten. What caused the Panthers (15-11, 7-6 Missouri Valley Conference) issues in those four straight losses are the exact things that have given them success in the five straight wins.

All that came at the perfect time, given UNI’s date with No. 24 Wichita State (18-6, 12-1) at the ever-raucous Koch Arena. The meat of this matchup has taken just a bit of a hit, as most thought the second go-round would have MVC title implications. Even if it doesn’t, there won’t be any love lost in Wichita.

Here’s a breakdown of the matchup between the two teams:

Key player

Northern Iowa: Wes Washpun, guard — It’s no coincidence his performances over the last five games have run in concert with winning. Coach Ben Jacobson freed him up with taking UNI away from running only the high ball screen, and moving him around the perimeter a bit. He also has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.6-to-1. He’s been a create-first and score-later point guard.

But it’s his defense that has been perhaps the most valuable. He’s guarded Anthony Beane, D.J. Balentine, Reed Timmer and Dequon Miller in the last four games — four guards who are among the best in the conference. He’ll have Fred VanVleet on Saturday, which perhaps is the toughest task of all.

Wichita State: Fred VanVleet, guard — This seems obvious, but one could pick VanVleet or Ron Baker and be safe. VanVleet is one of the top guards in the country, not just the Valley, and what he does for the Shockers is evidenced by what they did — or more accurately didn’t do — when he was out with injury to start the season.

He creates, he scores and he doesn’t turn the ball over. He has the third best assist rate in the country according to KenPom, meaning he assists on 43 percent of the field goals scored when he’s on the floor. He shoots 40.5 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from 3, and has just shy of two steals per game (1.85). He does everything, and does it well.

Strengths

Northern Iowa: Now that the offensive doldrums seem to be a thing of the past, the Panthers have climbed into the top 30 on KenPom in two very important offensive categories: effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage. UNI sits 26th with 54.3 eFG percentage, and 15th with a 15.1 turnover percentage. The Panthers take smart shots and don’t turn the ball over. Against a team like the Shockers, that’s as valuable a combination as it gets.

Defensive efficiency has improved over the last five games, holding teams below 70 points and to 0.900 (0.8999) points per possession. Even with some foul trouble by a few guys (see below), UNI still doesn’t put opposing players on the line much, and hasn’t hardly at all in the winning streak.

Simply, UNI is playing the best basketball it has all season, and is doing so at the right time.

Wichita State: Pick your poison with the Shockers. They reside below the national average on KenPom in exactly two statistical categories. The rest, they’re either slightly or far above average. Offensively, Wichita State sits 55th in efficiency, and takes care of the ball among the top 25 teams in the country. In addition to the Big Two, Conner Frankamp and Evan Wessel are reliable offensive players, and Shaq Morris has improved from last season.

But defensively is where the Shockers’ hang their hats this season. They rank sixth in defensive efficiency at 0.908 points per possession, hold teams to a 45.1 eFG (20th), force turnovers on 23.8 percent of possessions (fifth) and get steals on 11.2 percent of possessions (18th).

Wichita State has very few weaknesses, and it takes an uncharacteristic night for the weaknesses to be exploited — especially at home, where the Shockers are undefeated this season.

Weaknesses

Northern Iowa: Even while the Panthers have taken great strides on offense and defense in the last five games, there are still plenty of things to improve. Most of all, it’s doing the things they do well consistently. No, this isn’t copy and pasted from early December.

Against Missouri State, UNI had one of the best offensive halves it’s had all season in the first half. But in the second half, over an 0-for-10 streak, shot selection wasn’t good and the offense got to standing around. It also happened with Bennett Koch on the bench with four fouls. The Panthers fall into foul trouble, and Koch is the prime offender when he gets gassed.

UNI doesn’t get as much at the free throw line as it could — or should — and hasn’t even gotten to the line a ton lately. It’ll be a big hurdle, but a valuable one given it’s one of the few things Wichita State doesn’t do well.

Wichita State: There’s really not much the Shockers don’t do well, which has been the case for the last handful of years, as well as exactly why they’ve run away with the Valley. But on the right night, if put in the right situations, Wichita State certainly can struggle with a few things.

Running their offense through VanVleet and Baker is certainly a positive, as noted above, but the Shockers also are no longer as deep as they used to be. Beyond those two, the options dip in terms of rock solid dependency. That especially is true inside, where Shaq Morris has been good, but gotten himself in foul trouble several times in Valley play. His size gave Koch fits last time out, but Koch has grown, even in that short time, and has shown ability to get opposing bigs in trouble.

Wichita State sends teams to the free throw line as much as anyone, and teams capitalize more than all but four teams in the country from those trips against the Shockers. That helps UNI, even if its own free throw rate isn’t outstanding.

Northern Iowa wins if …

Washpun slows down VanVleet, Koch stays out of foul trouble and Wichita State can be baited into foul trouble of its own. UNI has the tools to win, there’s no doubt, but climbing the Koch Arena mountain takes poise under pressure on the road the Panthers haven’t shown this season. If they can stay in control when things get crazy, and stick with what they know has worked, the Panthers can pull off the upset.

Wichita State wins if …

it plays its own game and not UNI’s. The Shockers have dominated at home for a reason, because they feed so much off that environment and use it to get their opponents out of the game mentally, as much as they can physically. Their experience has served them well this season, and will need to again when facing an extremely motivation Panther team. Keeping perspective and relying on what’s gotten it to this point spells victory for Wichita State.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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