CHICAGO — Northern Iowa is incredible defensively. The Panthers have the 16th-most efficient defense in the nation, according to kenpom.com, after a 58-39 throttling of Loyola on the road Wednesday.
That’s surprising because Northern Iowa had nearly the exact same group of players last season, and that team had the 187th-most efficient defense per kenpom.com.
There was minimal change in personnel, but a momentous change in mentality.
“I feel like we kind of just shifted our mindset,” senior forward Nate Buss said. “After last year, we kind of realized how important defense was to our program. Everybody in the offseason really stepped it up and locked in defensively with our drills and with our footwork and our balance. A shift in determination was huge. We want to play defense. We understand that’s what’s going to win us games. We know that we always have to be focused on that end, and we always are going to be focused on that end.”
The defense is still getting better. Northern Iowa held Loyola to 0.72 points per possession, its best defensive mark of the season.
And that comes against a Loyola team that scored 1.03 points per possession in its previous four outings.
“Our defense is good, but [our players] understand it’s not gonna be perfect,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “We have to figure out ways to make it as hard as we possibly can [for opponents to score]. And that’s something that they continue to get better at. … That’s really the key — how much better can you get as your season goes on? This team is really good at that.”
Northern Iowa’s shift from defensive mediocrity to defensive excellence may be surprising, but it also makes sense. Buss was telling the truth when he said defense is important to the Northern Iowa program.
This is Jacobson’s ninth season at Northern Iowa, and this year’s team will be his fifth that finishes with a top-70 adjusted defensive efficiency nationally.
The Panthers don’t block many shots and don’t turn opponents over too often, but they smother you defensively. Finding quality shots against this team is very difficult.
“That’s the Northern Iowa that I’ve always remembered being in the Valley,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said of this year’s team. “It’s just like going to the dentist trying to score against them. Very tough.”
Moser knows. His team attempted 41 field goals Wednesday but scored just 39 points.
The Panthers, ranked No. 11 in AP Top 25 and No. 13 in The Catch and Shoot Top 25, will be playing in the NCAA Tournament whether or not they win the MVC Tournament in a few weeks.
The Bracket Matrix, which compiles NCAA Tournament bracket projections from across the web, pegs Northern Iowa as a No. 5 seed. The Catch and Shoot’s most recent bracket projections gives the Panthers a No. 4 seed.
For several reasons, no team will want Northern Iowa in their region — they have veterans, shooters, a smart and seasoned coach and a possible All-American forward in Seth Tuttle.
But the stifling defense is, above all else, why the Panthers can make a deep run in March, especially because they actually defend better away from home.
Northern Iowa has allowed 0.92 points per possession in road/neutral-site games this season, and that number is down to 0.88 points per trip in conference road games.
Last season, Northern Iowa went 5-13 in road/neutral-site games. The Panthers are 12-2 in such games this season, and their will on the defensive side of the ball is where that reversal begins.
“This group just having a better determination about them and better toughness about them,” Jacobson said. “[They are] wanting to come in and see if they can set the tone a little bit with our defense on the road and give ourselves a chance to have success.”