Game! Of! The! Night! 2/3/2009: Northern Iowa at Bradley

Northern Iowa at Bradley (Missouri Valley)
Carver Arena – Peoria, IL
8:05 PM EST

The Great Unknown is a scary thing, isn’t it? We pattern-seeking creatures require some sort of assurance that future events will mirror the results we’ve already seen. Staring into the anti-void of endless possibilities can result in a spectrum of emotions: from a slight unease to sheer fear, paranoia to all-out Panic(!!!). Some things simply fall outside the framework of basic logic, beyond the scope of best guesses and past-based prognostication. One of those is the 2008-09 Missouri Valley Conference regular season.

Ask Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson why his team is blowing open the league after a non-inspiring 6-5 nonconference record — and I did last week — and he’ll say something about improved confidence. That’s fine, I wasn’t expecting him to discuss freaky wormholes ripped in the fabric of the universe that were causing a team full of players that rarely bend their knees to go 10-1 in mid-majordom’s traditionally toughest conference. The Panthers’ halfcourt offense, which always finds the right shot, is straight out of the the playbooks our TMM header images were taken from. But just like Butler or Utah State or Davidson, ball control is UNI’s greatest weapon. That wasn’t there in losses to Iowa and Marquette and UIC, the drops that will depress any NCAA seed they might eventually earn. It’s just a team that runs its stuff, works hard, keeps a hold on the ball and wins league games. Ten in a row, in fact.

The opponent tonight is Bradley (13-9, 7-4), tied for second place in the conference with Illinois State and Creighton. The Braves were able to get out of the gate fast against UNI in their first meeting at Cedar Falls two weeks ago (a 10-0 lead, then extended to 13-2), but didn’t have enough rocket fuel to finish the job. If the Braves can get out in transition and hit a few 3’s, they’ll be in good position to win this game and make the BracketBusters selectors look like morons: BU will toil in the non-televised portion of the proceedings up in Chicago at Loyola. But victory will require a turnabout of a team weakness that’s cost it a few Bizarro Valley games, the same thing that keeps UNI on top. Bradley turns it over 21 percent of the time, well inside the bottom third nationally. It’s a smaller team on average, too, which costs them in the rebounding department. So our pick-to-click once again is Theron Wilson, the 6-5 senior battler who shoots well when the Braves win (51 percent), and has trouble hitting the side of Carver from the sidewalk (42.4) when they lose.