UNI Panthers

MVC men's basketball preview: This is likely a 1-bid league in 2019

Struggling UNI faces gauntlet to start Valley play

Drake guard Anthony Murphy drives against Iowa State guard Talen Horton-Tucker in a Hy-Vee Classic game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. The Bulldogs have been a surprise team in non-conference play, while MVC rival Northern Iowa has struggled. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Drake guard Anthony Murphy drives against Iowa State guard Talen Horton-Tucker in a Hy-Vee Classic game at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. The Bulldogs have been a surprise team in non-conference play, while MVC rival Northern Iowa has struggled. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — With non-conference play over, the Missouri Valley Conference has likely fallen short of securing consideration for an at-large bid when Selection Sunday rolls around in March.

The MVC and its combined 58-57 out-of-conference record (Division-I opponents only) ranks 12th among conferences (CBSSports.com RPI). First and second-place teams Drake (11-2) and Indiana State’s (8-4) NET rankings of 98th and 106th indicate the Valley will again be a one-bid league this season.

Earning a second, at-large bid has become an increasingly steep hill to climb for the mid-major conference. A 27-win Illinois State team with a 33 RPI was left out of the 2017 NCAA Tournament for its 123rd-ranked schedule and 1-2 record against top-50 RPI teams. Wichita State, which joined the American Athletic Conference before the 2017-18 season, secured the MVC’s last at-large bid in 2016.

Success within the conference, particularly at the conference tournament, has become the NCAA Tournament pathway as the MVC has failed to produce enough top-100 and top-50 games between its teams to earn consideration for a second bid.

The key to having success within the conference is experience, according to Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, something the 2018-19 Panthers do not have in abundance.

“The thing about it, and we all know this, when league play starts, experience matters,” Jacobson said. “Those four (Illinois) teams (Loyola-Chicago, Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley) have got it. And they’ve got very good players and all four of them are very well coached.”

Northern Iowa’s most recent trip to the NCAA Tournament, like all seven of its other trips, wouldn’t have been possible without experienced, veteran rosters, according to Jacobson. Experienced or not, the Panthers wouldn’t have gotten their bid to the 2016 NCAA Tournament without securing it automatically as MVC tournament champions.

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The MVC preseason poll favored the four Illinois teams, but Drake and Indiana State enter conference play as frontrunners for success in St. Louis at the MVC tournament.

“Those six teams right now, because of the experience the four of them have, and how well the other two are playing, as we start, I think that’s where you go to start,” Jacobson said.

The Panthers would fall out of the MVC’s top six if the preseason pollsters were given a re-do before conference play began. Jacobson acknowledged discussing with his team that their “process” is taking longer than they’d like, but praised their quality stretches of play while explaining the need to increase the length of those stretches.

“We’re still making too many mistakes and they’re mistakes that we have control over, which tells me that we’re going to keep getting better,” Jacobson said. “At this point we’d like our stretches being 30 to 34 minutes out of the 40. Right now if you added them up it’s probably closer to 22 to 25 minutes out of the 40. We’ve got to extend our stretches of good play. You do that through communication. You do that through awareness.”

UNI will be tested throughout its first five conference games as it faces teams all within the top half of the league standings. The Panthers open conference play Wednesday night in Peoria, Ill., against Bradley (8-5). Tipoff is 7 p.m. (ESPN+). The Braves, picked fourth in the preseason poll, are a veteran team led by junior guard Darrell Brown (15.1 ppg).

“They’re doing it defensively, again,” Jacobson said. “I think that’s one of the things that (Coach) Brian (Wardle) has done since he got there. (He’s) put his footprints all over what they’re doing at the defensive end of the floor. Offensively they know what they’re looking for.”

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