Fred VanVleet didn't start a single game as a freshman for a Wichita State team that reached last year's Final Four, but he's been making an impression early this season.
The eighth-ranked Shockers seek a school-record 15th straight victory Sunday while looking to avoid another upset at the hands of visiting Northern Iowa.
VanVleet averaged 4.3 points and shot just 38.6 percent in 16.2 minutes off the bench in 2012-13 for the Shockers, who made a surprising run to the West Regional championship as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The 5-foot-11 guard is playing a much bigger role this season, starting each contest and averaging 11.7 points while shooting 47.7 percent to help Wichita State (14-0, 1-0 Missouri Valley) get off to the best start in school history.
VanVleet's 4.11 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks among the best in the country, and he finished with 17 points, seven assists, two steals and no turnovers as the Shockers opened conference play with an 82-67 victory over Southern Illinois on Thursday.
"This group plays a little smarter than (last season's) group at times," coach Gregg Marshall said. "It starts with Fred."
Cleanthony Early, the team's leading scorer who is averaging 22.3 points over his last four, had 23 while shooting 8 of 11 from the field.
Wichita State ranks second in the MVC in scoring at 77.7 points per game and leads the conference with an average of 62.4 allowed.
"Like Coach says, it's easy to get a good look every time when you're setting yourself up," Early said. "It's easy to fall in love with just trying to score every time when you get a big lead like that, but we stayed patient and stayed focused."
The Shockers, though, have dropped both of their all-time matchups with Northern Iowa when ranked in the Top 25, including a 57-52 defeat in the most recent meeting Feb. 2 that ended their four-game winning streak in the series.
Early had 10 points in that contest before fouling out, and VanVleet attempted only one shot in a scoreless 14 minutes as then-No. 15 Wichita State was held to a season low in points.
The Panthers (7-6, 1-0) would like to pull off another stunner after beating Bradley 80-46 on Wednesday for the largest victory margin over an MVC opponent in school history.
Seth Tuttle, who finished with eight points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the last meeting with Wichita State, scored a career-high 24 against the Braves.
Tuttle leads the MVC in rebounding at 7.9 boards per game. He's averaging 13.5 points to lead Northern Iowa, which faced its share of quality competition during its non-conference slate.
The Panthers took then-No. 17 Iowa State to overtime before falling 91-82 on Dec. 7, and they earned a victory Dec. 14 against a Virginia Commonwealth team that at one point was ranked No. 10 in the country.
UNI is scoring 72.3 points per game after never averaging more than 67.4 in seven previous seasons under coach Ben Jacobson.
Wichita State has won four of the last five home matchups against the Panthers.