1. They have one of the nation's best players
If you're one of the few folks out there still unfamiliar with the name Seth Tuttle, that's going to change in a matter of hours.
Tuttle is likely to wind up as (at least) a second or third team AP All-American, and deservedly so. The 6'8 senior forward has started every game (134) of his college career, and is the only active player in Division-I with more than 1,600 career points, 850 rebounds and 250 assists. He ranks fourth in Ken Pomeroy's Player of the Year rankings, and will enter Sunday night's game as the nation's leader in in offensive rating (119.4 points scored per 100 possessions).
Like the player he's most often compared to, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Tuttle can shoot it from the outside, but he does the vast majority of his damage around the rim, where he shoots close to 70 percent.
Much like Montrezl Harrell, Tuttle began the season trying to prove too often that he was capable of knocking down the outside shot, but has since re-focused on what made him a star to begin with. He has tremendous footwork in the post, as reliable a jump hook as there is in the country, and is as good a passing big man as Louisville will have faced this season. Tuttle has had at least 3 assists in 24 of Northern Iowa's 34 games this season, including each of the Panthers' last six wins.
Though he struggled with foul trouble at times early on in the season -- fouling out in a win over Iowa and playing just 21 minutes and scoring a season low 5 points in a double OT loss to VCU -- he has remedied the situation later in the year, and has committed no fouls in two of Northern Iowa's last three games. He's a great shot blocker, and although he's not a tremendous 1-on-1 defender, that doesn't matter all that much in a system like Northern Iowa's which, like Virginia, focuses more on five guys playing the ball than one man keeping his guy from scoring.
Suffice it to say, the Cards have their hands full here.
2. They can really shoot it
UNI plays a very deliberate style on offense, where they will try to kill you with their execution in halfcourt sets. When opposing defenses collapse on Tuttle, he has plenty of options, and having eight Panther teammates who have attempted at least 30 three-pointers is a big part of the reason why his assist total is so stellar.
The Panthers ranked 13th in the country in three-point field goal percentage during the regular season, and buried 9-of-18 from beyond the arc in their round of 64 win over Wyoming. Junior guards Matt Bohannon (38.5%) and Paul Jesperson (42.6%) have each attempted more than 100 triples this season and have the size -- 6'4 and 6'6 -- to get their shots off cleanly. Senior forward Nate Buss is also unafraid to let it fly, and has connected on 39 of his 93 attempts from deep, despite averaging just 17.3 minutes per contest.
UNI is also stellar from the line, where they shoot 72.6 percent as a team. Smart sets, crisp execution, and good shooting is how a team that only averages 65.4 points per game can rank in the nation's top 20 in offensive efficiency.
In order to offset this, Louisville has to disrupt Northern Iowa's offensive sets with its press and its ball pressure. I was extremely surprised that we didn't more of that against UC Irvine, since the Anteaters had a different style, but a similar gameplan to the one the Panthers will have. The Cards forced 14 UCI turnovers, but the vast majority of those were not the result of U of L pressure.
If Louisville doesn't up its defensive pressure, press more effectively, and generate more points off of turnovers against UNI than it did against Irvine, then it's hard to see this turning out well.
3. Their fans have a cool dance
The "Interlude Dance" that UNI fans perform at every game has six steps (according to the school's website):
1. Warm your hands up around the fire.
1a. Clap your hands at the appropriate time
2. The Interlude
4. The ninja robot
5. Fist pumps, starting at the floor
6. The revenge of the Interlude
It sounds ridiculously stupid, but seeing thousands of people doing anything in sync winds up looking at least kind of cool.
4. They have two major weaknesses
One of the key tenets of any defensive philosophy like UNI's is preventing penetration, and Northern Iowa's guards -- while they have good size -- are prone at times to getting beaten off the bounce. If ever there were a time for Terry Rozier to wake up from his late season mini slump and morph back into the rim attacking monster he was back in January, this would be it. The long and short of it is, Louisville is going to have to score in the halfcourt, because the Panthers allow just 5.6 transition points per game, and that's the best mark in the country.
The other area where U of L has to just dominate if they want to have a chance to win is the offensive glass. While UNI is fourth in the nation in points allowed per game (an astoundingly low 54.3), they are just the 320th best rebounding team in D-I. If Harrell, Onuaku, Mathiang or whomever aren't absolute ballhawks or aren't taking advantage of their scoring opportunities after coming down with the ball, the Cards are going to have to rely on some uncharacteristically hot outside shooting to win .... and that's not a place you want to put yourself.
5. UNI might be down a starter, but their depth makes that not matter much
Starting guard Matt Bohannon injured the index finger on his shooting hand during the win over Wyoming and is still listed as questionable to play tonight. That might be a huge deal on a team like Louisville, but it's not for a Panther squad that has nine players who average at least 13.4 minutes per game, and non besides Tuttle who average more than 25.9.
If Bohannon (5.7 ppg) can't go, he'll be replaced in the starting lineup by Paul Jesperson (5.7), who owns a virtually identical stat line. That's a similar situation at every position outside of Tuttle's for UNI. No Panther besides the big man averages better than 7.8 ppg, but eight average at least 4.9 ppg.
Louisville might speed Northern Iowa up in an attempt to force turnovers or disrupt their halfcourt sets, but there's no point in trying to wear them down.
I'll be fully honest and say that I'm with the majority of the country in believing the Cards are up against it a little bit tonight. Louisville's inconsistencies have kept most of us from being able to fully buy into the notion of this being a potential Final Four team, and Northern Iowa is the type of squad that doesn't lose to teams who aren't playing somewhere in the vicinity of their best basketball.
Let's not act like we all aren't aware of what's going down in the East Region. If you look at the three potential hurdles in between this U of L team and Indianapolis, in my mind this is the largest. Any effort which results in a Cardinal victory tonight is going to undoubtedly be impressive enough to make us all fully buy into the possibility of something special happening this month.
Just find a way to win. Any way.