Sunday evening the Texas Longhorns learned that their first round opponent would be the 22-12 Northern Iowa Panthers, champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. UNI is no stranger to the NCAA tournament, making the field last season, and earning a trip to the 2010 Sweet 16 by knocking out the number-one-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. Let's spend a little time getting to know Ben Jacobson's team.
How Northern Iowa got to the NCAA Tournament
The Panthers got their regular season off to a roaring start. After dropping their home opener against Colorado State, they beat Stephen F. Austin and North Carolina (while Marcus Paige sat with an injury) in back-to-back games.
But after opening strong, Ben Jacobson's team struggled through December and January, playing through a string where they lost 10 of 15 games, which put them in a deep hole in the MVC conference. But the Panthers closed the season strongly, winning 9 of their final 10 contests, which included a road win at Wichita State. It was a good enough finish to allow Northern Iowa to end the season tied for fourth place in the MVC.
After a season like that, UNI was not expected the NCAA tournament as an at-large invitee. But the Panthers took control of their own destiny, winning Arch Madness in thrilling fashion. After taking down Southern Illinois in the quarter final game, Jacobson's men again defeated the Shockers in a 57-52 overtime contest. But the best was yet to come.
The championship game pitted the Panthers against Evansville. Northern Iowa pulled out to an early lead that sat a double figures at half time. The Purple Aces fought back, finally taking the lead back with 3:37 left in the game. The two teams battled back and forth, and finally UNI was afforded the last possession with the score set at 54-54.
Wes Washpun dribbled the ball outside, waiting for the moment to strike. He finally attacked the defense, crossing over his defender and dribbling to the free throw line, and pulled up for a jump shot. The ball hit back of rim and bounced high up in air before falling back down through the hoop. Game over.
What you need to know about Northern Iowa
The Panthers play a distinctive style of offense and a distinctive style of defense. It is a style that could probably be best termed as plodding, yet efficient. UNI games frequently feature very few possessions.
Jacobson's offense features a spread out floor that allows his athletic senior point guard Wes Washpun to play off the bounce and find seams in the defense. Washpun is not a terrific perimeter shooter himself, but he goes to the rim with bad intentions. 37 percent of his chances come at the rim, and has converted 68 percent of these shots, which is is a pretty good percentage for a 6-1 guard.
But Washpun is perhaps even more dangerous when he can attack the defense to draw help defenders and find his teammates open from beyond the arc. He is surrounded by three dangerous perimeter threats -- Jeremy Morgan, Paul Jesperson, and Matt Bohannon -- and two forward in Klint Carlson and Bennett Koch who can finish around the rim.
UNI has two other distinctive offensive traits: the Panthers protect the basketball, and they rarely get offensive rebounds (their offensive rebounding rate is the lowest in D-I). Their low offensive rebounding rate is a choice. Rather than choosing to pursue second shots, they get pretty much everyone back on defense as soon as a shot goes up.
For regular readers of this blog, you probably know by now that I frequently rely on a graphical construction known as a waterfall chart to look at a team's offense and defense and quickly surmise what it does well and what it does poorly. You can read more about them here, but for a quick summary this explanation should suffice.
In the waterfall chart, we start off on the far left with a typical team that scores and allows 1.04 points per possession. Then we move through each statistical category showing how it raises or lowers the points per possession total of a team when compared with this "typical" squad. When we add and subtract all of these things, eventually we should get to the team's point per possession total, but we don't quite make it there, because of small differences between the equation and reality that compound and require a correction. In the waterfall, this is the "correction" that I show, which bridges the gap between calculation and the team reality, which sits at the far right.
We can use the waterfall chart to see how things come together for the UNI offense.
I would argue that the Panthers, while effective scoring the ball, really owe more of their success to what they do on the defensive end of the floor. UNI's defense ranks in the top 50 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted points per possession metric, and allowed only 96 points per 100 possessions in MVC games.
Northern Iowa's defense places a priority on containment, rather than on disruption. It is hard to beat the Panther's in transition, and in the half court they do an outstanding job of both limiting dribble penetration and avoiding fouls. (They have held opponents to the second lowest free throw rate in the country this season.)
Over the course of the season, Jacobson's defense has been a good example of the idea that if you are mostly average, but are good at just a few things, the net result can be quite effective. UNI is more or less average at two point field goal and three point field goal defense and doesn't force a particularly high rate of turnovers. But the Panthers control the defensive glass and they don't foul.
While the waterfall charts don't really bring this out, Northern Iowa does allow opponent's to take their chances from three point range. Sometimes they hit them, and sometimes they don't.
A game that can go by in the blink of an eye
UNI games tend to be low possession affairs. When coupled with the fact that the Panthers don't draw many fouls, and almost never foul themselves, a typical Northern Iowa game doesn't take very long to play. Think of the Panthers as the opposite of West Virginia in almost every way, and you will get a pretty good picture to work from.
The Panthers also shoot a lot of threes -- 42 percent of their attempts have been from beyond the arc -- and their opponents shoot a lot of threes as well.
While all basketball games can produce a wide range of outcomes, the UNI style of play is uniquely suited to create final scores that are highly variable. Jacobson's team has won games scoring 93 points and won them scoring 53 points. And because of the way they play -- slow, carefully, and without fouling -- the game frequently rides on the outcome of a handful of three point shots.
The variability of the Panthers shows up rather clearly in their record, where they followed up a 5-10 stretch with a 12-1 finish. Lately the variability has worked in their favor; UNI has only suffered a single loss since January 27.
For Texas the picture seems clear -- it will be the same that it has been all year long. If the Longhorns hit some outside shots and UNI struggles, then Texas can win this game rather easily. But if Texas struggles shooting the ball and the Panthers are reasonably on target, Shaka Smart's first NCAA tournament with Texas could last less than the scheduled two hour time slot.