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Men's basketball: Yes, Northern Iowa is the real deal

ST. LOUIS -- We're still a few days away from Selection Sunday, and your office NCAA Tournament brackets are still a blank canvas, waiting to be written in. But when the time comes to make your picks, don't forget about Northern Iowa. The Panther...

ST. LOUIS -- We're still a few days away from Selection Sunday, and your office NCAA Tournament brackets are still a blank canvas, waiting to be written in. But when the time comes to make your picks, don't forget about Northern Iowa. The Panthers will be a tough out. They'll enter the tournament with sharp elbows, and even sharper minds.

Or maybe it's the other way around.

This much we know for sure: The University of Kurt Warner can hoop.

In sweeping through the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Tournament over the weekend at Scottrade Center, Northern Iowa completed a dominant two-year run as the league's undisputed heavyweight champ.

Coach Ben Jacobson's experienced nucleus has gone 51-15 the last two seasons. That record includes 35 wins in 42 games against league opponents, including the conference tourney. With two consecutive titles in the bag, UNI has got to be one of the finest MVC teams of the modern era.

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Sunday, No. 1 seed Northern Iowa dodged a threat and put the clamps on No. 2 seed Wichita State, 67-52. Using superior depth and applying its normal defensive vise, Northern Iowa gradually squeezed the energy from the latest Valley victim to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

How dangerous is Northern Iowa? MVC Player of the Year Adam Koch didn't score a point Sunday and the boys from UNI still won in a rout. Coach Jacobson, a former UND player and assistant coach, rolled out the tanks and hit the Shockers with a 10-player attack, often substituting four or five at a time. In three MVC tournament wins, the Northern Iowa bench provided 222 minutes, 10 steals, 23 rebounds, 21.3 points per game and shot 56 percent.

Indeed. Northern Iowa reduced three tournament opponents to puddles of sweat. In holding Drake, Bradley and Wichita State to 33 percent shooting and a puny average of 44 points per game, Northern Iowa reinforced its reputation as one of the nation's most exceptional defensive teams. In Division I, only Princeton has allowed fewer points per game this season. And opponents have 276 assists and 489 turnovers against the Panthers; that ratio is 28th best nationally by a D-1 defense.

The Panthers wiped out the Shockers with a second-half torrent of defense, going from six points down to the 15-point winning margin in about as much time as it took for a quick mop-up of the floor. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what happened: UNI swept Wichita State out of an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. And an at-large bid is doubtful for the Shockers.

"Northern Iowa's a great team," said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. "They're well-coached, they're seasoned, they're experienced. They'll win games in the NCAA Tournament. They'll win at least one, if not two games, in the NCAA Tournament."

We agree, coach.

And we would add that as non-royals go -- in other words, we concede this isn't Kansas, Kentucky, Duke or another esteemed basketball blueblood -- the Panthers are smart, tenacious, deep and do not make many stupid mistakes. This is not the kind of team that figures to eliminate itself from the tournament. Someone will have to deliver a legitimate knockout punch to drop Northern Iowa.

The only possible minus for UNI is the strength of competition. I'm a longstanding MVC fan and apologist, so it pains me to say this, but the Valley is stuck in a mediocre stretch. The league hasn't had more than one team in the NCAA Tournament since 2006-2007. In '06, the Valley put four teams in the NCAA Tournament, an invasion that caused basketball elitists Billy Packer and Jay Bilas to nearly implode on national TV. And two of the entries, Bradley and Wichita State, advanced to the round of Sweet 16.

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Somewhere along the line, the MVC programs foolishly ignored commissioner Doug Elgin's intelligent formula for constructing a sturdy NCAA Tournament resume. Elgin challenged the league's coaches and athletic directors to pursue more challenging schedules, take on BCS conferences and avoid feasting on cupcakes that would soften their Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).

Elgin's plan was the main reason four MVC teams crashed the NCAA Tournament in '06. And in 2007 -- the last year the Valley had at an-large invitation -- Southern Illinois was waved in largely due to ambitious scheduling. The Salukis' non-conference foes that season included Arkansas, Indiana, Butler, Virginia Tech, Minnesota, Western Kentucky and St. Mary's.

For some reason a wave of new coaches and ADs who have entered the MVC over the past few seasons think they know more than Elgin. Some of these guys have taken a knucklehead approach to scheduling, apparently believing that stockpiling junk-calorie wins against garbage teams is the best way to get into the NCAA Tournament. It isn't. In fact it is absolutely the dumbest, most damaging approach to scheduling for an MVC program. History confirms that. It isn't just the new guys, either. Some of veteran coaches need to be reminded too. Have these know-it-alls finally learned their lesson?

So as another successful Missouri Valley Conference tournament ends, I have a couple of wishes:

One, a successful NCAA Tournament for Northern Iowa. That means a win or two.

Two, a box of Q-tips for MVC coaches and ADs. Let them clean their ears and enhance their hearing. It'll help when it's time to listen to Elgin's lecture on scheduling.

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