How’s this for a headline? A team that was voted to finish sixth in the preseason poll by coaches in the conference is currently two full games ahead of second place, with an 11-2 choke hold over conference foes.
This team, projected to pass up what could be a successful season for a borderline .500 finish, is surprisingly 17-7 and has won eleven of its past twelve games in one of the toughest mid-major leagues in the nation.
So what is their secret? How do they do it? The answer for the Panthers hasn’t been outscoring, outrebounding, or outdefending opponents, it has simply been outshooting them.
The success of the Panthers, like many other bracket busters, has been a result of taking every possession for granted and making sure to get the most of each one.
And we know this because they lead the conference in both field goal percentage (46.0%) and points per shot (1.36).
They take very good care of the ball (something every bracket buster needs to do) and although their defense can be lacking at times, offensive efficiency and free throw shooting make up for it.
But surprisingly enough, despite the Panthers’ self proclaimed successful offensive sets, nobody scores over 12 points per game, a sign that this team has some serious chemistry.
The 6'8" junior Adam Koch who didn’t even receive honorable mention in the preseason polls, leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, at 12 and 5.1 per game, while also serving as an emotional leader for a team that only has one senior.
He is their go-to-guy in the critical minutes of games and shoots a remarkable 80.1 percent from the strike, something very few 6'8" 245 big men can claim.
It’s not like this team has had many disappointing losses either.
That one point loss to Indiana State in double overtime may not have been the result that they wanted, but the rest of their losses (with the exception of Illinois-Chicago) were to well established basketball programs in major programs.
And they can even brag about a six point win over Auburn, a game in which they shot 53.7 percent from the field and a stunning 8-17 from downtown.
However, like most other mid-major programs, anything short of a conference championship would put an NCAA tournament bid in serious jeopardy. Yes, the Missouri Valley has a chance at being a two-bid league, but not if they continue to beat each other up.
The Panthers essentially must dominate conference play from here and get that win over Siena in bracket busters weekend if they wish to lock up a bid without winning the conference.
And a game at Illinois State on Feb. 24 will certainly be a big test as they will need to prove to the selection committee that they are capable of winning under all conditions.
But enough with the speculative future of the Panthers. February is about enjoying where a team is now without having to worry about what lies ahead (which in many cases is self-destruction).
Northern Iowa has established itself as a premier program in the Missouri Valley Conference and will return every single one of their significant players next season to a team that could see a top-25 spot.
We, the bracketbuster fans, forgive your most recent home loss to the 19-6 Creighton Bluejays; it was an off night from downtown. If Adam Koch can put up more performances similar to that (23 and 12, 13-13 from FT), then there should be no problem against the rest of the conference, right?
Please Northern Iowa, just don’t shoot yourselves in the foot come tournament time because a Sweet 16 run is definitely possible. Keep your eyes open for this team in March.
This article is also featured on www.thebracketbusters.com.