The road is long and winding in Missouri Valley Conference play, and although Northern Iowa (23-3) already clinched the league’s regular-season title by punishing Creighton (13-14) 70-52 Tuesday, the Panthers should know their work is far from finished.
If anything, they’re putting the finishing touches on an NCAA Tournament-worthy résumé.
Missing seven feet of production after their second-leading scorer and top rebounder, center Jordan Eglseder, was suspended for three games following a DUI arrest, Northern Iowa has encouraged selection committee members to consider the Panthers’ loss to Bradley (13-13) Saturday to be a fluke. The Panthers blew away the Blue Jays, the team they tied for the regular-season championship last season, and improved their home record to 12-0.
This all without Eglseder’s 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Northern Iowa will have to face the same circumstances twice more, starting with Old Dominion (21-7) in a Friday BracketBusters game on ESPN2.
Old Dominion, tied for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association, is an RPI top 50 team, a slight improvement in the challenge department compared to 13-14 Creighton.
An Eglseder-less win over the Monarchs would only help cement Northern Iowa’s already-solid case for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. According to ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi, should the tourney start today, the Panthers would be a No. 7 seed.
Old Dominion, according to the same guy, would be a No. 9 seed.
The BracketBusters match will be a break from what turns out to be meaningless-in-regards-to-conference-tournament-seeding games for the MVC champions. But neither the Panthers nor the Monarchs will want to lose any NCAA ground in the at-large bid discussions.
Once done with Old Dominion, the Panthers will only have to survive one more game without their 7-footer, on Tuesday at Evansville, which has lost 16 of its last 17 games and is dead last in the conference.
A home date with Illinois State, whom the Panthers beat last year in overtime to win the conference tournament, will be last on the regular-season schedule. A four-game winning streak to finish the year — without counting the three wins they could rack up in the MVC tourney — will be just what the Panthers need to strengthen their case for a better seed in the NCAA Tournament.