Friday, February 7, 2020 5:38 PM | CBN
By: Liam Blutman
I’m not afraid to be bold, I have no fear of being stranded alone on an island. I’ll get straight to the topic of this article...
Northern Iowa will make the Elite 8.
Am I still stranded alone on the island? You didn’t join me? Welp, maybe there might still be room for you here in the middle of March. Until then I’ll just chilIing and I'll keep watching college basketball.
The reality is this year there are many quality teams and not a single elite team. Mid-Major basketball possesses some of the most enticing teams this season and I’m quite confident in UNI. The key to success in March is getting hot at the right time and we all know that the best four teams are almost always not the last four standing.
When selecting a Cinderella pick I evaluate the following: Strength of schedule, efficiency, 3-point shooting, star power, and unselfishness. That’s what I saw in Loyola (Chicago) when I shocked everybody by stating they’ll make the Final Four. During non-conference they got smacked by Boise State and responded by winning at Florida, who was ranked 5th at the time. The response from a 87-53 defeat was knocking off the #5 team in the country and that’s when I started to obsess over that team. They ranked 66th in offensive efficiency and 30th in defensive efficiency. The Ramblers shot 39.8% from three and were incredibly unselfish as evidenced by dishing the 13th most assists in the country. Clayton Custer and Donte Ingram were stars complimented by numerous high level role players such as Marques Townes, Cameron Krutwig, and Ben Richardson. That team simply had the recipe for success and their run was no shock to me.
Northern Iowa and the Cinderella recipe…The non-conference schedule featured a trip to Cancun that resulted in a tough loss to WVU followed by a 6-point win over South Carolina the next day. UNI held a 15-point lead in the 2nd half over WVU which resulted in a really unfortunate outcome but ideally some lessons were learned. A few weeks later, UNI took a trip to Boulder and knocked off Colorado with some spectacular shooting down the stretch. AJ Green hit a huge three off an inbounds play to tie the game at 76 with 1:10 left.
How efficient is this Panthers team? They actually rank 13th in the country on the offensive end and 96th on the defensive side. I’d like to see the defense step up and force some turnovers as they are one of the worst in the country when it comes to forcing TO’s. The 3-point shooting is lights out for UNI. They play a slower tempo offense that moves the ball around and finds open shots for knockdown shooters. UNI ranks 7th in the country from deep as they shoot a scorching 39.5% clip.
Next up, star power. And they do indeed have a star. It’s AJ Green, a 6’4” sophomore guard who grew up right there in Cedar Falls. A hometown kid playing for his hometown school with his dad on the bench every game as an assistant coach. Green is averaging 19.3 points per game, shooting 41.6% from the field and 39.3% from three. AJ is a prolific free throw shooter as you can tell due to his impressive 91.8% mark at the line. AJ isn’t afraid to shoot, not afraid of big moments as he’s got ice in his veins and has that killer mentality that all elite scorers possess. This is who the city of Cedar Falls trusts in big spots and wouldn’t choose anybody else to shoot a three down two with a second to go or ice the game with two free throws up two with a few seconds left. When the NCAA Tournament arrives, you’ll see AJ Green hit at least one big shot. It’s happening so don’t be surprised when the time comes.
Other names to watch are guard, Trae Berhow and the big man, Austin Phyfe. Berhow averages 14.0 PPG, shoots 52.1% from the field and 47.1% from three. He's the sidekick to Green and is quite a good talent, watch out for him. I also really like Isaiah Brown, the 6’7” senior that plays the role of three and D. He’s the best defender on the team, is an outstanding leader, and is shooting 40.3% from deep on 3.1 attempts per game.
The unselfishness won’t show up on the stat sheet. UNI averages 12.2 assists per game and spread the ball around but assists aren’t always getting tallied after taking a few dribbles and shooting a three.
Northern Iowa is certainly a tournament team regardless if they win the MVC or not and they can thank Loyola (Chicago) for that. Back in 2018, it was said that Loyola wouldn’t make the NCAA tournament if they didn’t win the MVC tournament. That was quite an awful statement and was proved to be idiotic when the Ramblers marched to the Final Four. But if they lost in the first round, UNI wouldn’t be a lock to make the tourney this year and that’s pretty crazy. I project UNI to be a 10 seed but if they win out they’ll be in play for a 6 seed. As a 10 they’d do battle with a 7 seed and certainly a 2 seed in the first weekend. To the point I made early on, there are no elite teams and UNI can play with anybody. Just remember that when filling out your bracket and don’t be afraid to do something bold, whether you take Northern Iowa like me or shock your friends with your own Cinderella pick. All GOOD teams are on a level playing field.
My bold pick shoots the three at a high level, controls tempo with a slower pace and hometown hero AJ Green leads the way with his elite scoring ability while Isaiah Brown is the senior leader and thrives on defense. It's one of the most efficient offenses in the country, it’s Northern Iowa and they are ready to make noise in March.