MVC basketball: Panthers look to return to the Big Dance

COLIN HORNING, Sports Editor

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Although it’s known to many as a mid-major and lesser-tier basketball league, the Missouri Valley Conference is consistently one of the most competitive and unpredictable conferences in the entire NCAA. With teams like Loyola-Chicago making Final Four runs and UNI knocking off top-ranked teams such as Kansas in the NCAA tournament, the Valley has earned its reputation to be taken seriously come March Madness.

At around the midway point of the 2019-2020 men’s college basketball season, the UNI Panthers currently sit in a three-way tie atop the Missouri Valley Conference along with the Bradley Braves and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, all with a 3-1 record so far in conference play. Aside from Northern Iowa, the other two teams have represented the Valley in the NCAA Tournament in the last two years (Loyola in 2018 and Bradley in 2019). But behind these three teams sit five other Valley opponents currently holding 2-2 conference play records, meaning that the top seed in the MVC tournament is practically up for grabs at this point in the season.

All year, Northern Iowa has proven themselves to be the cream of the crop in the Valley. They currently hold a 14-2 overall record, with their only losses coming to 12th-ranked West Virginia in Cancun, and on the road against Illinois State, which is rated as the fourth-hardest road environment according to basketball analytics site KenPom. They also hold a solid road win against 24th-ranked Colorado, which is in the top five of difficult road environments, also according to KenPom.

While many around the league agree that the Panthers are one of the top teams in the Valley this season, the scheduling in conference is one of the most grueling in the nation. There are no safe or easy games in the league, even if the opponent has an inferior record. The Evansville Purple Aces, for example, whom currently sit at the bottom of league play with an 0-4 record, defeated the University of Kentucky earlier this season on the road, while Kentucky was ranked No. 1 at the time. Top to bottom, the Valley remains one of the most competitive in the nation because of the balance of talent throughout the league.

So far, the Panthers remain the favorite to come out as the top seed for the conference tournament in St. Louis. However, the tournament itself often times proves to be unpredictable as well, meaning that seeding is not as important as it may seem. Northern Iowa, however, will still likely finish first in the Valley, followed by Drake, Loyola, Bradley and Valparaiso to round out the top five seeds. Expect the Panthers to roll through Arch Madness and receive the Valley’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament, returning to the dance for the first time since 2016.