On the evening before what some people may consider a semifinal for the Oklahoma football team in Morgantown, the Sooners basketball team faces a semifinal of their own in Kissimmee, Florida versus a very tough Northern Iowa team. The game will start at approximately 6 p.m. CT on ESPNU.
Coming off a 19-point victory over the Green Wave, OU will be up against a team that just beat Arizona State by 19, as well. This stingy Panther team will serve as the Sooners biggest test as of yet. Oklahoma should know one thing going into this game: do not take the panthers lightly. With that being said, here are some key components of the game to watch and prepare for before engaging in this matchup tonight.
If any college basketball team embodied the style and career of Tim Duncan, Northern Iowa would be high on the list. Given the nickname "The Big Fundamental", Tim Duncan became known for doing the little things exceptionally well. You won't catch Tim Duncan flying above the rim like Lebron, or posterizing people every game. He was not a flashy player. Just like Northern Iowa. At first glance, Northern Iowa may not seem like a huge threat because they won't be highlighted on Sportscenter top 10 plays. They aren't known for picking up the best recruits in the country. People seem to overlook teams who don't have the "flashiness" of teams like Duke, Kentucky or Kansas. And that's just what the Panthers want you to do.
In just 10 seasons with the Panthers, Ben Jacobson now has the most wins in Northern Iowa history. How do they do it? Jacobson has been able to get his players to believe in playing defense. This is a big reason why the Panthers are currently 58th in the country in scoring defense (allowing 63 points per game). Northern Iowa is currently 301st in the country in blocked shots per game, only averaging one block per game. What does that say about this defense? It means this defense is not a threat at the rim, but good at pressuring teams into turning it over or make them take contested shots. Northern Iowa is currently 61st in the country in steals, averaging eight steals per game. This does not bode well for a Sooners team that averages 14 turnovers per game and is currently ranked 169th in the country for turnovers per game. Will this Northern Iowa team be too much for this young Sooners squad? Don't count them out yet.
This OU team is 8th in the country in field goal percentage (55.2 percent) and 11th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage (48.6 percent). The Sooners currently have six players that are shooting 60 percent or better from the floor on the season, with Matt Freeman leading the way being ranked 17th in the country for field goal percentage (80 percent). Oklahoma will need to continue to shoot well and attack the rim, as well as take care of the ball on each possession. It all starts with the senior guard, Jordan Woodard. This sets up for an epic clashing between two good programs. Oklahoma will need to continue their offensive efficiency, while Northern Iowa will do their best to limit high-quality shots from the Sooners.
Taking smart shots. Limiting turnovers. These are a couple qualities that contribute to a team's efficiency. This battle today will test the efficiency of both of these teams. Going into the game, the Sooners are limiting their opponents to a 37.1 shooting percentage (ranked 54th in the country), while Northern Iowa has gotten out to a fast start of shooting 50.9 percent from the field (ranked 42nd in the country). However, the Sooners may hold an advantage over the Panthers with their 55.2 percent shooting from the field (ranked 8th in the country), and Northern Iowa being ranked 129th in the country allowing their opponents to shoot 41.5 percent. This game may result in many three pointers made, considering that Northern Iowa is currently 4th in the country in 3-pointers made per game (13 3-pointers per game) and the Sooners are also making 8.5 3-pointers per game. Northern Iowa also has a streak of 533 straight games of making a 3-pointer in a game.
Both of these teams give up a lot of 3-pointers in each of their games as well, as Oklahoma is ranked 210th (7.5 opponent 3-pointers per game) and Northern Iowa is ranked 235th (8 opponent 3-pointers per game) in how many 3-pointers they allow their opponents to make. This type of production on both sides will result in a seemingly close battle. One area that the Sooners will need to focus on is speeding up Northern Iowa, and making them give away the ball.
Coming into this game, Northern Iowa is only turning over the ball 10 times a game, which is ranked 25th in the country. Oklahoma is averaging seven steals per game, and are ranked 114th in this category. Oklahoma has utilized a full-court man pressure throughout the season, and will occasionally trap the ball-handler at half court typically with Woodard and Kristian Doolittle. This has resulted in some steals off of bad passes, but if the team can get out of the trap they have been able to expose the Sooners defense before they could recover. If OU does choose to attempt to disrupt the Panther offense in this fashion, they will need to make sure they can recover if Northern Iowa beats the press. This Panther team is smart enough and are good enough shooters from the outside to use this to their advantage.
Just like Oklahoma's former opponent Tulane, Northern Iowa is in a rebuilding year. Half of the Panther roster is underclassmen, and Northern Iowa lost three of their top four scorers (sound familiar?). Northern Iowa lost three very good players in Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson. However, they return Jeremy Morgan (15.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4 assists) and Bennett Koch (12.5 points and 3.5 rebounds) who have shown to be crucial to this team. Also returning, Spencer Haldeman(10 points and 3 rebounds), has given the Panthers some crucial minutes, as well as the freshman Isaiah Brown (10 points and 2 rebounds).
Oklahoma's rebuilding year has transformed the way they play. Last season, it was a little more clear-cut what kind of performance to expect from each player statistical wise. Buddy Hield would give the Sooners points, with Isaiah Cousins dishing out assists and Ryan Spangler grabbing the boards. This season, the lines are more blurred. OU has more "stat-stuffer" players, meaning players that can contribute in every area. These are players like Jordan Woodard (19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals), Christian James (12 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists) and Rashard Odomes (9.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.5 steals). This will help the Sooners throughout the season. When a player starts struggling in one facet of his game, he can be able to contribute in other ways and not be a liability on the floor.
This will be a hard fought battle between two up and rising basketball programs. Each of these teams has not faced great opponents, and will be the biggest test for both teams on both sides. This can be a very high scoring game as well, as both teams know how to knock down the outside shot and put the ball in the bucket. The Sooners will need to take care of the ball and be able to disrupt the offensive scheme of Northern Iowa without giving up open shots. Oklahoma will edge out the Panthers in a close one, and advance to the championship against either Clemson or Xavier.
Oklahoma 85- Northern Iowa 81