WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The most famous player ever to lace up his sneakers in the Missouri Valley Conference has been watching Northern Iowa and Wichita State for most of the season.
He watched them beat up on his alma mater, Indiana State. He watched as the Panthers’ Seth Tuttle and the Shockers’ Ron Baker became Oscar Robertson Trophy finalists. He watched both teams climb the polls, their regular seasons culminating with a massive showdown coming on Saturday.
At stake? The regular-season conference championship.
“It’s always great for any conference to have teams get national recognition, but especially for a conference like the Missouri Valley Conference,” Larry Bird told The Associated Press. “I’ve followed both teams, watched them a lot, and they’re both really good.”
The 10th-ranked Panthers (27-2, 16-1) are riding a school-record 17-game win streak, their last loss coming in their league opener to Evansville. Along the way, they ended Wichita State’s lengthy conference winning streak with a 70-54 victory at home on Jan. 31.
Now, though, they have to head to the Roundhouse, where the No. 11 Shockers (26-3, 16-1) have won 31 consecutive games. It will be senior day for Wichita State as it tries to win back-to-back league championships for the first time since the mid-1960s.
“It’s a perfect storm in terms of making the right decision in the summer to schedule these two teams to play on this day,” league Commissioner Doug Elgin said.
It’s especially gratifying for Elgin given where the league was just a couple years ago.
Longtime powerhouse Creighton had just jumped to the Big East in the chaos of conference realignment, and the Shockers were left without much of a rival. Wichita State underscored that fact by stringing together a perfect regular season last year, and then storming through the conference tournament with seemingly little effort.
But all the while, the Panthers were quietly rebuilding. And after winning 16 games last season, the program that made Ali Faroukmanesh a household name and once knocked Kansas out of the NCAA tournament was back in the national spotlight. Northern Iowa went 15-0 at home this year, capping its perfect run by avenging that loss to Evansville earlier this week.
“There’s a lot of reasons you put in the kind of time that the guys do, and this would be toward the top of the list, or at the top of the list,” Panthers coach Ben Jacobson said, “to have yourself in a position where you’re lining up for a conference championship.”
The two teams are in many ways mirror images of each other. Both are ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, each has a national player of the year candidate and both have March aspirations that go beyond simply winning the league race.
The winner Saturday, depending on how things shake out in the conference tournament, could make a big climb in NCAA tournament seeding when Selection Sunday rolls around on March 15.
“It’s a big-time game and we’re excited about it. We know they’re going to be ready to go,” Tuttle said. “We know that place is going to be a madhouse.”
Indeed, the Shockers are virtually impossible to beat at Koch Arena, their cozy on-campus home, where sound tends to reverberate off the walls in a never-ending roar.
Just ask Creighton, which was ranked No. 12 when it visited Wichita State a couple of years ago. Not enough Doug McDermott could save the Blue Jays in a 67-64 defeat.
“This is obviously a big game for many reasons,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said Friday. “You’ve got to be able to focus your attention when the time is ready for preparation and getting ready for the game. There’s a lot of things going on and it’s all positive, but at the same time, we have to have our minds right so we can stop these guys.”
The Shockers did a poor job of that when they met last month.
Northern Iowa used a 19-3 first-half run to take control, Tuttle finished with a career-high 29 points and the Panthers rolled in the first game between ranked Valley foes in 33 years.
Now comes the second game, this time with a championship on the line.
“I tell my players that we’re recruiting, and the players in the program, if they come play for us, they have to know their ring size and they can’t be afraid of heights,” Marshall said, “because they have to get up on that ladder and cut nets down.”
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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