What to make of Northern Iowa’s at-large chances after shocking loss to Drake

Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 03/06/2020

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It didn’t take long for the #ArchMadness bracket to tip upside down.

No. 1 seed and heavy favorite Northern Iowa suffered a devastating 77-56 defeat to Drake on Friday, setting the table for an unexpected autobid out of the Missouri Valley.

The Panthers — which entered the day 25-5 with all five losses coming by six points or less or overtime — chose the wrong day to muster one of their worst offensive performances of the year, shooting just a sliver over 30 percent from the field in the blowout loss.

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Drake, meanwhile, had previously fallen in seven of its last 10 games before the Missouri Valley tournament, losing its two matchups against Northern Iowa this season by a combined 37 points.

Instead of UNI dominance, it was Roman Penn and the Bulldogs flexing their muscles. Penn drilled a trio of 3-pointers and finished the day with a stellar line of 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

It’s already the second heartbreaking loss in as many years for UNI at this event, blowing a 35-17 lead against Bradley in last year’s winner-take-all title game. Now, after the first No. 1-vs.-No. 8 upset in Missouri Valley tournament history, Northern Iowa is set for an agonizing nine days.

The Panthers are now squarely on the bubble with a No. 36 NET ranking — which will likely take a dip in Saturday’s update — in addition to just one Quad-I victory at Colorado and three Quad-3 losses.

Had Northern Iowa advanced to the MVC title game or even the semifinals, Ben Jacobson’s squad would have a significantly stronger case for an at-large bid.

But can a team sheet with 19 of its 22 victories against Quad-3/4 opponents and only one quality win survive this year’s bubble? Could recency bias play a part in whether UNI appears in the field of 68? History certainly makes Northern Iowa’s situation look bleak.

In 2017, Illinois State entered the MVC tournament with a 25-5 record, a win over a tournament team in Wichita State, three bad losses and was blown by 20 by the Shockers in the conference title game. ISU was left out of the tournament.

The year before, Wichita State lost three power-conference games without star guard Fred VanVleet, had a win over eventual No. 3 seed Utah and lost in overtime in the MVC semis. Even with VanVleet’s injury taken into account, a top-10 KenPom ranking and no resume-damaging losses, Gregg Marshall’s team was slotted into a First Four play-in game. It was yet another example of how slim the margin of error is for mid-major teams this time of year.

The Panthers failed their first survive-and-advance test of the year. Don’t be surprised if it winds up being their only one.


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member.