If you go by ranking and record, No. 11 Northern Iowa (30-3, 16-2) is one of the best teams in America. The Panthers have won 19 of their last 20 games and overcame an 18-point deficit to beat Illinois State, 69-60, in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship on Sunday, thus earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Northern Iowa, of course, was going to make the tournament regardless of Sunday’s result. After all, the Panthers have lost just once since January 1, and two of their three losses were the definition of quality: 93-87 in double overtime at VCU on Dec. 13, and 74-60 at then-No. 11 Wichita State on Feb. 28.
Aside from those two setbacks, Northern Iowa, which ranks fourth in the country in scoring defense (54.3 points allowed per game), has been more or less untouchable.
And yet, Jerry Palm projects the Panthers as a No. 5 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
“Northern Iowa has had a really good year, but their best win is Wichita State once,” the CBS Sports bracket expert said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “They didn’t get them the second time, which is kind of unfortunate for them, and then they beat Iowa on a neutral floor. I think (Iowa is) probably a better team than people think, but that’s really it. They don’t really have the great wins. Now, they don’t really have damaging losses, either. They lost to Evansville, but (they’re still) a really good team. But when you’re fighting against teams that have these higher-quality wins, it’s tough for Northern Iowa to get much higher than a 4 or a 5.”
Then again, that certainly beats the alternative of not making the tournament at all. Sadly, that may be the reality for No. 25 Murray State, which fell to Belmont, 88-87, in the Ohio Valley Conference Championship on Saturday. The Racers (27-5) had won their previous 25 games – trailing only Kentucky for the nation’s longest winning streak. They even went 16-0 in conference play and hadn’t lost since November.
And now they’re likely to miss The Dance altogether.
“They get to play in the NIT,” Palm said. “Maybe they’ll do well there, but they don’t have anything even remotely resembling an at-large profile.”
And this, Palm said, is not similar to SMU, which missed the tournament last year despite being ranked No. 25 in the final regular-season poll – and despite going 2-0 against eventual national champion Connecticut.
“This is completely different,” Palm said. “SMU actually played in a decent conference with some good teams. Murray State has (27) wins, but they’ve only got one near the top 100 in the RPI, and that was Illinois State. They didn’t play anybody, they didn’t beat anybody, and the two best teams they played – Xavier and Valparaiso – absolutely ran them off the floor. Valparaiso beat them by 35.
“They won’t get more than about 30 seconds of discussion (from the selection committee). There’s just absolutely nothing to talk about there.”