NCAA Game Preview: Northern Iowa

Kerwin Roach. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Kerwin Roach. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Hoops Preview: NCAA Tournament – UNI
Date: Friday, March 18
Time: 8:50 pm Central
Television: TBS
Location: Chesapeake Arena (Oklahoma City, OK)

The Texas-UNI game thread. Come join us.

Opponent Strengths:

Texas’ placement in the West Region typifies the blessing/curse reality of college basketball. It’s an entire region full of flawed teams…Texas is one of them. OKC is the closest geographical location to Austin possible…they’ll be joined at their site by A&M fans, OU fans and VCU fans. The region has arguably the weakest 1 and 2 seed in the tournament…Texas may not make it out of the first round.

The University of Northern Iowa Panthers weren’t expecting a whole lot this season. Gone from last season’s 31-4 campaign were four senior starters, including 2nd Team All-American Seth Tuttle who led the Panthers in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. This year was about facilitating the transition from that unit to a new one with head coach Ben Jacobson’s consistent reliance on in-state players. And, indeed, two months ago when UNI had lost its sixth game out of seven contests to fall to 10-11 on the season, it appeared that those expectations of the natural struggles that occur when replacing a program’s most important players was going to knock UNI down to mid-midmajor status once again.

Then they ran off a six game win streak (including a win at top 10 Wichita State). And then, sandwiched around a road loss, they put together another six game win streak, this time including a run to the MVC Championship in St. Louis complete with a last second buzzer beater to secure their spot in the Big Dance.

UNI is as hot as any team in the country, has veteran players who have played (and won) games in the NCAA Tournament and are, arguably, playing with house money…a.k.a….they’re dangerous and Texas had better watch out.

Wing shooters. Jacobson’s teams traditionally play slowly and this one’s no outlier. UNI relies heavily on screen actions (both on ball and away). What makes the Panthers unique is that they play a lot of four guard (or, at least three guard and one lengthy wing) looks, making them very dangerous on slips and reversals which forces defenses to maintain assignment awareness and giving UNI great spacing. This is aided by UNI’s ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Bohannon and Jesperson are the volume shooters from deep, but Morgan, Lohaus and Washpun are all capable shooters. It’s what UNI’s run has been built on. Ball control followed by late defense collapses against spacing which lead to late open threes in the clock which are daggers when a defense has played a tough 28 seconds already. Texas has to find shooters and maintain contact for a full shot clock all game long.

Free throw shooting. As one might imagine, given their personnel decisions, UNI is a fantastic free throw shooting team. They don’t get to the free throw line much, but that’s because they play so slowly and because they rely so heavily on three pointers. However, tight game in the MVC Championship, UNI hit 12-13 foul shots. Close game to close out the regular season at Evansville, UNI hit 12-13 foul shots. Close win at Wichita State, UNI hit 8-9 foul shots. They make close games difficult to win because they change the way a defense can attack them knowing that putting the Panthers on the line will likely end in points for Northern Iowa. For the season, UNI ranks 19th in the country in free throw percentage. Given Texas’ struggles with fouling, this could be a huge piece in this game.

The Panthers look to be led by 6’1” senior point guard Wes Washpun (14.3 points, 4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals, .6 blocks per game). Living in Cedar Rapids and teaching/coaching at Jefferson, I had the chance to watch Washpun when he played at rival Washington High School (they had Washpun, we had Jarrod Uthoff, Linn Mar had Marcus Paige…not bad for our little Metro area). In fact, I’ve watched many of UNI’s players since their prep days, but I did not expect the Washpun we’ve seen this year when he originally signed for Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee Volunteers out of high school. Washpun, always a fantastic athlete with great body control (he was actually one of the standouts for Wash’s show choir as a dancer and singer), Wes has raised the level of his game as a consistent playmaker dramatically over the last two seasons, even as he shared the spotlight with fellow point guard Deon Mitchell last year. Similarly to Taylor, Washpun is just about impossible to stay in front of when he turns the corner against the hedge in ball screen action. He’s fast, strong and fearless attacking the paint. Dissimilarly from Taylor, he’s not dealing with an injury and has a mindset that’s a bit more steady (if still temperamental by nature). Texas’ ability to force somebody other than Washpun to beat them will go a long ways towards getting what they want out of their defense.

Opponent Weaknesses

Offensive rebounding. This isn’t really fair because they truly don’t even bother, but UNI’s commitment to stopping run outs and quick baskets for their opponents highlights their lack of intensity at creating second chance opportunities. In Texas’ losses this year, their opponents have garnered, on average, 42% of their field goal misses. In Texas’ wins, that number dips to 29%. UNI’s numbers are lower than both of those, which should bode well for the Longhorns if their initial shot defense holds up as well as it has thus far through the season.

Interior defense. You catching the trend here? UNI’s interior struggles generally come from the fact that they don’t have an interior game. To that effect, in UNI’s 12 losses, they have a combined 23 blocked shots. Prince and Ridley combined (in only 43 combined games) have more blocked shots than UNI has all season. This makes the (hopeful) emergence of Ridley that much more important. If Texas can get positive offensive games from their big men, it will make the dribble penetration games of Taylor, Felix and Roach that much more effective. And UNI looks to likely not put up that much of a fight on the interior (they’ll play zone and plenty of it).

Texas Keys: Offense

Attack the zone off the bounce. Lots of teams look to attack a zone off of ball movement and spacing in the soft spots of zones. That’s not Texas. They just don’t have those kinds of natural passers. The Longhorns have to have dribble penetration against the zone, which they’ll likely see a lot of. The good news for Texas is three fold. First, UNI’s issues with interior defense should make matters easier for Felix as a penetrator. Second, UNI’s a good defensive team, but they aren’t better at creating turnovers than some of the teams Texas has played. Third, UNI’s length doesn’t come with the same type of wing athleticism that a team like Baylor’s would have. If Texas can get into the paint off the bounce, they’ll likely have good luck against UNI’s defense.

Ridley/Cleare/Ibeh. Both Ridley and Cleare are plus offensive players on the low block. That’s against good teams in the defensive paint. It’s likely this game will be a first to 65 kind of affair. If Texas can get some consistent offensive production out of their bigs, that will be a lot easier to come by. It will be important for Texas’ perimeter players to be patient and recognize when the post entry angles are there. If they can do that, Texas should be in good shape, offensively.

Texas Keys: Defense

Perimeter recognition. I don’t think UNI can beat Texas without the three point shot being a big point getter for the Panthers. If Texas can make UNI shoot contested threes, they’ll be find. The more open perimeter looks UNI gets (especially in late clock situations) the worse.

Washpun for himself. Washpun’s at his most dangerous when he’s able to create for others. However, when he has to be a scorer for himself through penetration against a half court defense, he’s easier to take advantage of. Texas can live with Wes being a volume shooter (and even a volume scorer) as long as they make the other UNI shooters create for themselves instead of off of Washpun’s creativity.

The Endgame

I think Texas wins this game. And, like many high seeds, I think their ability to win this first game will go a long ways towards getting them into the latter stages of the tournament. The West Bracket is there for the taking, but no journey starts without a first step.

Can Texas get this one?

They certainly can. Hopefully they will.

Prediction: Texas 68 – UNI 62

Projected Starting Lineup