Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- The Missouri Valley's surprise leader looks poised to continue its success, but #27 Northern Iowa (17-6, 11-1) must face some difficult opponents down the stretch. One of its toughest tests comes this afternoon, as #49 Creighton (18-6, 8-4) comes to town.
Northern Iowa had an uninspiring run in the non-conference, getting blown out against Marquette and Iowa, and losing to some lower-tier opponents in UIC, Wyoming and Iowa St. After dropping their conference opener in double overtime to cellar-dwelling Indiana St., though, the Panthers have run off 11 in a row, including impressive wins at Creighton, Bradley, Drake and Evansville. Their last three games have all been close affairs, within 4 points at the finish, and there’s no reason to expect this one to be different. Creighton had a decent non-conference performance: it dropped a couple of tough road games to Arkansas Little Rock and Nebraska , but picked up an excellent win over Dayton, en route to a 10-2 record. In the Valley, though, the Bluejays failed to find much consistency, alternating good and bad stretches. The good news for Jays’ fans is that Creighton is coming in on a high, having won its last three games, including a solid win at Drake on Wednesday.
Northern Iowa runs a slow-tempo, deliberate offense, and it shows in some of the ways we might expect, with the Panthers committing few turnovers, but being among the nation’s worst offensive rebounders. Northern Iowa doesn’t attempt a huge number of threes, though, and doesn’t hit a great percentage of the ones it does take. Instead, Northern Iowa depends on scoring well inside, over 50% from two-point range, and getting to the free throw line, where they shoot nearly 75%. The Panthers’ ball control will be greatly tested in this game, as Creighton is the conference’s best team at forcing turnovers, getting opponents to cough it up on nearly one-of-every-four trips. Other than that, the Jays aren’t particularly special, doing a decent job of stopping shots, but being somewhat foul-prone. Creighton doesn’t have a lot of size, so Northern Iowa should be able to have success pounding the ball inside.
Creighton fits the stereotypical mid-major role of a strong shooting team with a limited interior presence, and it manages to be fairly effective within that role. The Bluejays shoot 39% from behind the arc, and 76% from the free throw line, but don’t make a lot of two-point shots, and are weak offensive rebounders. On paper, this would seem to matchup well against the Panthers, as Northern Iowa have struggled to defend the three-point shot, and won’t force a lot of turnovers. This fits with what we’ve seen on the court, as Creighton’s last game with UNI was easily the Panthers’ worst defensive showing of 2009. One area that Northern Iowa should have a big advantage in is on the glass, as the Panthers are among the best in the nation in recovering opponents’ misses. With the Bluejays somewhat outsized down low, UNI should be able to get a larger number of possessions.
Senior Booker Woodfox is Creighton’s most important player, leading the Bluejays in scoring, and is one of the nation’s most efficient players. The Bluejays’ depth has hurt his pure numbers somewhat, as he has one of the highest points/40 minutes rates in the country, but plays just 25 minutes a game. Woodfox has hit 48.5% of his numerous three point attempts, and is the Valley leader in free throw shooting at over 88%. He doesn’t have a ton of value outside his shooting, but that is more than enough to make him one of the conference’s elite players. One thing Woodfox does do well is avoid turnovers: he has just 23 in the Jays’ 23 games, and boasts one of the country’s best rates. Beyond Woodfox, the Bluejays present a deep group of effective guards. P’Allen Stinnett takes a lot of shots, and makes just enough of them to justify the volume. Josh Dotzler does very little scoring, but he leads the Valley in steals, and the team in assists, along with posting a solid 2.8 A/TO ratio. Cavel Witter is a solid three-point shooter, but is under 40% on two-point shots and commits a lot of turnovers. Justin Carter starts, he’s one of the teams’ better rebounders, but hasn’t shown much offensive value. Kaleb Korver comes off the bench, and, just as you’d suspect from his name, he’s a three-point specialist, making 44% of his threes and attempting just four two-pointers so far this season. The Bluejays have just two players over 6-5 who get significant time, led by 6-9 sophomore starter Kenny Lawson. Lawson puts up the team’s best rebound rates, and leads the Valley in blocks, while also shooting over 50%. In the last few games, sophomore Kenton Walker has emerged as a solid inside option, playing 20 minutes in each of the last three games, including a career-high 15-point effort against Missouri St. Antoine Young is a freshman guard who has also seen a greater role, but has struggled with his shot, while Casey Harriman is a more perimeter oriented forward who has been an effective rebounder, and has recently found a decent groove with his three-point shot.
Northern Iowa has a very balanced attack, with five players that all average around 10 points a game. The most interesting one of these five may be the one who plays the least, 7-1 junior Jordan Eglseder. Eglseder is a game changing force when on the floor, taking a big proportion of the Panthers’ shots, and putting up very high rebounding and shot-blocking rates. He leads the team in both those categories, despite averaging under 20 minutes a game. Eglseder’s starting partner in the frontcourt is 6-8 Adam Koch, who hits 50% from the field, but does his best work at the free throw line, shooting a good percentage and getting there very often. Kwadzo Ahelegbe is the primary guard, leading the team in assists, but occasionally struggling with turnovers and just an average scorer. Freshman Johnny Moran and junior Ali Farokhmanesh are good starters alongside Ahelegbe in the backcourt, a pair of very good shooters that provide solid scoring options. Farokhmanesh is especially strong inside, where he hits nearly 60% of attempts. Kerwin Dunham and Travis Brown are solid shooters off the bench who don’t get a lot of attempts, while Lucas O’Rear is a very effective player inside, who comes into the game a lot during Eglseder’s time on the bench.
This game is really too close to call in my mind, looking like a very even, back-and-forth battle. However, Creighton is a team in great form, and given the trouble that the Bluejays caused for UNI’s defense in their first meeting, the visitors should have enough to pull the big surprise.
Winner: Creighton Margin: 1-5
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.