Opinion: Northern Iowa must improve to be a true threat in March

Photo: USATSI

This is a guest post by Tim Balk (@TimBalk). Balk is a freshman at Northwestern University studying journalism, and he writes with The Catch and Shoot’s Jesse Kramer at The Daily Northwestern.

While Northern Iowa’s 58-39 win over Loyola on Wednesday at the Gentile Center was far from an oil painting, the Panthers’ performance was nonetheless convincing. They flexed their defensive muscle and displayed their depth.

Playing on a bitterly cold night in front of a sparse crowd, it would be have been easy for Northern Iowa to get complacent.

Instead, the Panthers shut down Loyola from the outset, clogging passing lanes, crashing the boards hard and spraying 3-pointers. A relatively sloppy performance from senior Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa’s stud forward and only true standout, did not slow down the 11th-ranked Panthers.

Northern Iowa jumped out to an 18-8 lead early and rolled from there, pulling in 11 offensive rebounds and draining nine treys in the wire-to-wire victory.

Photo: USATSI
Northern Iowa has won 14 games in a row. (Photo: USATSI)

The Panthers have now won 14 straight games. They’re knocking on the door of a top-10 ranking. Folks across the country are now taking notice of the storm brewing in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

But this all begs the question: is Northern Iowa a serious mid-major threat to make noise in March?

To that question, the answer would seem to be no. Or, at the very least, not yet.

Which, given the fact that it’s still the middle of February, is far from catastrophic.

The Panthers a very good basketball team that’s playing great right now. They have not played a truly tight game since their Jan. 28 meeting with Southern Illinois. In between, they crushed Wichita State, the other big bad bully of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Yet, they’re also not quite ready for the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament.

That much was clear in their rout of Loyola. Even though the Panthers did every thing that needed to be done to win — and win convincingly — cracks were still visible that need to be smoothed over.

Loyola’s trapping defense bothered Tuttle and others, and Northern Iowa finished with 13 turnovers.

“In terms of taking care of (the ball) for the entire game, I thought we were just a little bit rough,” admitted coach Ben Jacobson.

Tuttle finished with five turnovers.

“He was a little more patient in the second half,” said Jacobson. “I think he, in the first half, felt like he was going to be able to kind of squeeze it through there.”

Meanwhile, the Panthers lack of a go-to perimeter scorer remains a slight concern. Northern Iowa’s ball movement was sublime at times against Loyola, but at other times it was too slow.

Northern Iowa’s offense moves at a plodding pace. And while their defense ranks among the best in the nation, their physicality in the post leaves something to be desired at times.

The good news for the Panthers — and their chances of a deep March run — is they are improving. They’re not the same team that nearly lost an overtime tilt with a bad George Mason team in early December.

The Panthers are playing their best ball of the season right now.

But they are going to have to get even better to have a magical March.

“That’s really the key,” said Jacobson, “how much better can you get as your season goes on?”

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