ST. LOUIS — Evansville is the most experienced team in the Missouri Valley by age, but the Aces will be at a disadvantage in experience Sunday when they face Northern Iowa in the MVC Tournament championship game at the Scottrade Center.
Not only does Northern Iowa’s starting lineup feature three seniors and a junior, but the Panthers also have the experience of playing on this stage before. They won the MVC Tournament last season, forging an 18-point comeback against Illinois State in the finals.
Every player in Northern Iowa’s rotation this year was on that championship roster.
Meanwhile, no one on Evansville’s roster had even reached the conference semifinals until this season.
“It’s a big-time stage,” senior guard D.J. Balentine said. “It’s a feeling we haven’t felt before. We’re really excited.”
The big stage is unusual for the entire Evansville program as well. The Aces have reached the championship game only once, and that was in 1999.
Evansville lost to Creighton in that game, although the Aces made the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid.
That team remains in contact with the program.
“They constantly remind us that they’re the last team to go to the tournament,” said Balentine, the program’s No. 1 all-time scorer and a two-time All-MVC First Team selection. “We’re trying to prove them wrong and hopefully we’ll become the last.”
In order get that elusive first tournament berth of the millennium, Evansville needs to get past a Northern Iowa team that ranks No. 51 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Panthers have some bad losses, but they also have some of the best wins in all of college basketball this season, defeating Wichita State on the road, Iowa State and Wichita State again on neutral sites and North Carolina at home.
Northern Iowa has one of the conference’s best point guards in senior Wes Washpun. Junior guard Jeremy Morgan is one of the league’s best two-way players, and seniors Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson are outstanding spot-up shooters.
Sophomores Klint Carlson and Wyatt Lohaus have emerged as additional threats late in the season, bolstering the Panthers’ depth.
Evansville counters with the dominant, inside-out duo of Balentine and 6-foot-10 center Egidijus Mockevicius, along with a supporting cast where each player knows and embraces his role.
“All of our focus is on [Northern Iowa],” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “We’re just trying to stay in the moment. We’ve got to prepare to the best of our abilities, and then hopefully we’ll go out and play the best 40 minutes we’ve ever played.”
While this Evansville team will experience the MVC Tournament’s Sunday afternoon finale for the first time, the squad has participated in a championship situation before.
The Aces accepted a bid to the CIT last postseason after getting bounced in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals by Illinois State. They ran the table and defeated Northern Arizona in the title game 71-65.
The CIT is starkly different from the MVC Tournament. The CIT is for mid-majors who failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Arch Madness is for teams fighting for a NCAA Tournament berth.
The Aces also benefitted from playing the CIT title game at their home arena instead of at a neutral site like the Scottrade Center. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, Northern Iowa brought larger fan contingents than Evansville’s.
“Obviously the CIT championship is a little bit different than the conference tournament championship,” Balentine said. “But it still gives us experience. We’ve been in a championship game. We understand that winning a championship is not going to be easy.”
Northern Iowa swept Evansville in the regular season, but those games were not easy, either.
In the first meeting Feb. 3 at Northern Iowa, Evansville erased an eight-point halftime deficit and led 54-53 in the final minute of regulation. Washpun made a go-ahead layup with 27 seconds left, and the Panthers survived 57-54.
They met again last weekend in Evansville, and the Panthers’ held off another Aces’ second-half comeback for a 54-52 victory.
The stakes will be higher Sunday, and KenPom projects another thriller. The advanced stats guru favors Evansville by one point with a 51 percent of victory, proclaiming this title match essentially a tossup and leaving the MVC’s automatic bid to the Big Dance completely in the balance.
“It’s still hard to wrap our minds around that tomorrow we’re playing for a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” Evansville guard Blake Simmons said. “This is something I know me and D.J. and the rest of our guys have dreamed about since we were kids. Having the opportunity, it’s a lifelong dream. We’re excited for it. We can’t wait.”