If not for last season’s upset of #1 seed and prohibitive tourney favorite Kansas in the 2nd round of the tournament, you might not have ever heard of Northern Iowa. You would have seen the school listed on your SU pocket schedule and probably would have shrugged it off as some no-name cupcake squad looking for a paycheck. But thanks to the heroics of Ali Farokhmanesh, the entire country has heard of Northern Iowa, and knows they were an 8-seed last season and are a solid mid-major program. A very, very intriguing matchup to open the season. Uncomfortably intriguing.
UNI finds themselves in a similar position to SU, having to replace three starters — a center, a forward, and a sharpshooting guard. But unlike the Orange, UNI had a deep rotation last year, with 10 players seeing action in at least 28 of their 35 games, and 9 of them averaging over 10 minutes per game. So they’ve got plenty of big-game experience on their roster. All five of this season’s starters played at least 17 minutes in that Kansas game. Don’t expect them to be cowed by the Dome or anything like that.
This will be a very challenging game for SU. UNI’s reputation has been built on defense. SU’s offense, though they piled up points in the two exhibitions, is very much a work in progress. Guys are adjusting to new roles and new teammates. They have potential to be explosive but it takes time to develop and fine-tune a good offensive flow. Defense is easier to get ready early in a season. Just have your kids play hard and know their assignments. UNI, with their experienced players, has a good chance of completely disrupting SU’s attack, forcing a lot of turnovers and contested shots. Their defense is going to be rock-solid, hard-nosed, and damned frustrating. Think of them like Pittsburgh, but with corn instead of steel. (Northern corn.) Or like [insert unwatchable Big Ten team].
The gigantic question for UNI is where their offense will come from. Only one of their returning players scored more than 6 points per game last year (senior guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe averaged 10.6). They averaged 63ppg as a team but 33 of those 63 points have graduated. In their two exhibitions (against the University of Mary and - wait for it - Wartburg) they scored only 67 and 57 points respectively. They shot a combined 10-43 (23%) from long range in the two games, and under 40% overall from the floor. Against Division II (UM) and Division III (Wartburg) competition. They should have a seriously rough time against the Orange zone.
The bottom line is that this will probably be an ugly one. A brickfest. Turnover central. “You ain’t got no alibi.” The lurking danger for SU is that all UNI really needs to turn this one in their favor is for one of its stable of guards to suddenly get hot from long range. We’ve certainly seen it happen before. Still, if I were a betting man, I’d take the “under”. I won’t be surprised if UNI fails to break the 60-point barrier, and SU could easily end up down there with them if things go badly.
One place SU has a clear advantage (as they often do in November games) is in height. The UNI starting frontcourt goes just 6′9″ - 6′6″ - 6′6″. They have some girth where they lack height, though: the 6′9″ player is 255 lb. sophomore Jake Koch, and one of the 6′6″ guys is 260-lb. senior Lucas O’Rear (the other is just 200 lbs). Expect them to body up on SU’s bigs and try to push them around. Rick Jackson should hold his own but this will be an interesting challenge for Fab Melo. I bet he’s rarely faced a player who is heavier (and, I would guess, stronger) than he is. This will be a difficult early test of his abilities on both ends of the floor. The backcourt matchups, meanwhile, should be good ones. UNI’s two returning starters are both guards, while SU returns a couple of experienced guards of their own. Turnovers will be key here, in particular those that lead to fast breaks in a game where points will be at a premium. In terms of the bench, UNI gave significant minutes to ten different guys in each of their two exhibitions, but nobody really stood out (including the starters). Each one scored a few points, grabbed a couple rebounds, or what have you. Two of the bench players had significant reserve roles last season (guards Marc Sonnen and Anthony James) and a third is their tallest player (backup center Austin
Peay Pehl) so you figure at least those three guys will see chunks of time. How much any of them will actually contribute is anybody’s guess.
My key to the game is the play of the underappreciated Rick Jackson. Last year, SU would have no problem with this team, because either Rick or Arinze would be able to post up and score at will. (Every time I think of that tandem, I think of the Butler game and what should have been. Gnyaaaagh!) That won’t be an option this year; Rick is going to draw the opponent’s best post defender nightly. Some games it won’t matter. But this one is probably going to be a defensive slog, and when you are slogging, when the opponent is up in your shooters’ faces and your offense is being forcibly ground to a halt, it’s crucial that you can dump the ball down into the paint and get some points. That’s Rick’s job. If he can deliver a half-dozen of those lefty layups of his, SU will be just fine. But if he doesn’t, then watch out. We could be seeing Wichita State redux.
In closing: Wartburg Wartburg Wartburg.