The Northern Iowa Panthers are currently ranked 10th in the nation, but don’t put them in your Final Four just yet. Not only is there a lot of basketball left to play, but their ranking is far from indicative of their overall talent.
Look at it this way: the Panthers have an overall record of 27-2, and are tied with the No. 11 Wichita State Shockers for the top spot in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) with a record of 16-1. Those numbers may look great on paper, but let’s dig a little deeper.
The truth is that the MVC has to be one of the easiest conferences in college basketball. After Wichita State and UNI, the next best teams are the Indiana State Sycamores (14-15, 10-7 MVC) and the Illinois State Redbirds (18-11, 10-7 MVC), who are tied for second place. As a result, the closest thing the Panthers have to a signature win this season is their January 31 victory over their conference-mates, the Shockers.
That said, let’s take a look at tournaments past and what happened to teams with inflated reputations. Last year, Wichita State went undefeated and many thought them a lock for the Final Four after they drew a No. 1 seed. Sure enough, when they ran into a power conference rival in the Kentucky Wildcats in the round of 32, their weaknesses were exposed.
The same happened in 2013 to the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who drew a top seed in the tournament and lost in the round of 32. Ironically, the team that eliminated them was Wichita State, ultimately made the Final Four. Even more so, Gonzaga is ranked third in the nation this year and is likely bound for a top seed, despite zero signature wins.
So in spite of the respective histories of teams that have been in the same boat as this year’s UNI Panthers, most seem ready and willing to pick them for a lengthy tournament run even though they really haven’t faced any top competition besides Wichita State. When it comes time for people to fill out their brackets, hopefully they will not already be overtaken by a severe case of Panther-Scratch Fever.
*Section Photo credit to Peter Aiken, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press.