This year’s NCAA Tournament is three days old, yet it may not be hyperbole to say that this tournament may be one of the best we’ve ever seen. The parity and upsets this year have been quite impressive. As yesterday we saw three 1-3 seeds fall, including number 1 overall seed (and my tournament pick) Kansas fall to (9) Northern Iowa. Last year in the tournament, the story was the top teams won, and it was evidenced by the teams that were in the Sweet 16. Of those 16 teams last year, 14 of them were 1-4 seeds, including all 1-3 seeds making it (which was unprecedented). This year with just the first 8 spots filled we have five, 5 seed or lower teams in the Sweet 16.
While the upsets are aplenty this year, none was bigger than yesterday’s Northern Iowa over Kansas game. While it killed probably half the people brackets (including my own) it was hard not to root for Northern Iowa to win yesterday. It might not truly be David beating Goliath, but its pretty close. No one gave Northern Iowa a chance to win that game yesterday, yet they controlled the game from start to finish. Northern Iowa wasn’t supposed to match up with Kansas, in terms or size, athleticism, or even talent, yet they are the ones heading to the Sweet 16.
The Panthers won by controlling the tempo of the game, as they used their fantastic defense to throw off the Jayhawks game plan and slow down the game. Northern Iowa isn’t great in any one area, and they don’t have that one dominate player like most top Mid-Major teams do. And while they definitely have some veteran players, I wouldn’t call them a true veteran team. Five of their top 10 rotation, including two starters, are freshmen or sophomores. While they are a good shooting team, they don’t create a lot of offense, with just three players in double figures, and no player averaging more than 12 points a game. They win because of their harassing defense, that consistently forces bad shots and turnovers. Yesterday they imposed their will on Kansas, and forced 15 turnovers to their 9. The Panthers also forced the Jayhawks to shoot below their average and completely took their 3-point game away forcing them to go 6-23 from behind the arc.
It’s a bit surprising that Kansas wasn’t able to break down the Panthers defense or figure out what Northern Iowa was doing offensively. Not only is Kansas a deep and fairly experienced team, but they have always been a very smart and talented team as well. Either this year or next Kansas will be sending Collins, Taylor, Henry and Aldrich to the NBA, yet none of these guys were able to succeed against Northern Iowa. Kansas’ guards were completely harassed on the perimeter and couldn’t ever find an open look. And when the Jayhawks did go inside, the Panthers contested every shot. The Jayhawks two point guards were affected the most Sherron Collins and Tyshawn Taylor were not able to do anything, they went a combined 4-21 from the field (all by Collins) and 0-11 from behind the arc. By taking them out of the game, Northern Iowa made it a one dimensional offense for Kansas and they weren’t able to handle it.
Northern Iowa wasn’t intimidated and showed a lot of heart, especially as Kansas mounted a comeback in the final couple of minutes. Most underdogs would have broken down at that point, but the Panthers kept on coming, and did what no one thought they could do, send Kansas packing.