Enough exhibitions, enough speculation, it’s time for the good stuff to begin. Whereas previous season openers have paired the Orange with a regional opponent (a la Siena or Albany), this season’s first game will match SU with one of the major stories of last season’s NCAA Tournament. Ben Jacobson’s Northern Iowa Panthers stunned #1-seed Kansas in the second round with a 69-67 upset that sent the Jayhawks home two weeks before they had planned to leave. The 60 combined wins between Syracuse and Northern Iowa last season are the most in the country for this year’s slate of season openers, and both teams finished 30-5. The main difference is that while UNI’s Sweet 16 finish signified its ceiling, ‘Cuse’s Sweet 16 finish signified disappointment.
The Panther team that will arrive at the Carrier Dome Friday night will be different from the version that won the Missouri Valley Conference two years in a row, as guard Ali Farokhmanesh and seven-footer Jordan Eglseder both graduated. Still, Kwadzo Ahelegbe, Johnny Moran, Jake Koch and Kerwin Dunham make for a dynamic group of shooters who can obliterate a zone defense if they’re hot.
In the paint, Lucas O’Rear and Koch are decent big men, and both are making the adjustment from bench options to starting roles. In terms of size, Rick Jackson and Koch are evenly matched, but in O’Rear, Fab Melo will have the first of many uneven matchups in the middle of the zone. That’s not to take anything away from the UNI big man, who is the reigning two-time Missouri Valley Conference Sixth Man of the Year; it’s just hard to give up six inches in the paint and stand much of a chance.
Out on the wing will be Kris Joseph going up against Dunham. After Melo-O’Rear, this is the next-biggest mismatch in favor of the Orange. Dunham is another player who is making the move into a more prominent role with the Panthers. He’ll be tested early and often not only against Joseph’s crazy athleticism, but also against the perimeter games of James Southerland and Mookie Jones.
In the backcourt is where things even out for the Panthers. Ahelegbe is UNI’s leading returning scorer at 10.6 PPG, was named to the preseason all-conference team, and took home Most Outstanding Player honors in last season’s conference tournament. His Achilles’ Heel is shaky ball control, as he led the Missouri Valley Conference in turnovers last season with 104; 20 more than the next-closest player. It will be a nice early challenge for Scoop Jardine, and he’ll also have a chance to prove that SU’s stingy perimeter defense of last season wasn’t a fluke.
Brandon Triche will lock horns with Johnny Moran, who does a few things decently, but aside from free-throw shooting, nothing particularly well. I don’t have any doubts about SU’s sophomore being able to pass this early-season test, and Dion Waiters won’t be overwhelmed in the first regular-season action of his career either.
Simply put, Northern Iowa has to go on a three-point shooting barrage to have a chance in this one. They’re capable, though I think SU’s advantage in the frontcourt far outweigh any shooting edge the Panther’s perimeter players bring. I’ll predict a 78-65 victory for the good guys, but don’t be surprised to see UNI hang around for awhile in this one.