After a narrow victory, Wichita State's remaining path to an undefeated regular season appears extremely navigable. Saturday night's visit to Northern Iowa might be the most difficult hurdle remaining for the fourth-ranked Shockers.
Wichita State (24-0, 11-0 Missouri Valley) clung to a two-point lead late at Indiana State on Wednesday before outscoring the Sycamores 7-2 over the final 2:01 en route to a 65-58 victory.
The Shockers, who are one of the nation's best rebounding clubs with an average margin of plus-8.1 per game, were outrebounded for just the second time this season, giving up a 41-35 edge. They were also just 8 of 23 from the field over the final 20 minutes, but again relied on their elite defense to limit Indiana State to 32.1 percent shooting for the game.
Coach Gregg Marshall's squad is seemingly playing even tighter defense as the season winds down, limiting its last seven opponents to 54.9 points per game and 36.8 percent shooting.
"We won it with defense in the second half," Marshall said. "... We didn't shoot the ball nearly as well in the second half as we did the first. But in the second half, it was all about rebounding and defense."
Cleanthony Early carried the Shockers' offense late, scoring 15 of his 19 points in the second half. He's averaging 19.4 points over his last five games while shooting 52.6 percent, including a 15-of-29 mark from 3-point range. Prior to that stretch, he had tallied a season-low six points in back-to-back games.
The only above-.500 teams remaining on Wichita State's schedule are Drake (12-11) and Missouri State (16-7), whom the Shockers will host to close their season on March 1.
Wichita State knocked off the Panthers 67-53 at home on Jan. 5 for its fifth win in six meetings. Fred VanVleet scored a career-high 22 points while Early added 18.
While Northern Iowa has dropped five of seven since a 3-1 start in conference play, the Shockers have lost 11 of 15 trips to Cedar Falls, where the Panthers will play host to their highest-ranked visitor ever Saturday.
Northern Iowa (11-12, 5-6) is 8-1 at home this season and 75-17 going back to 2008-09, trailing only Wichita State for the best home winning percentage among current MVC teams during that stretch.
The Panthers are coming off Wednesday's 76-65 loss at Illinois State. Seth Tuttle had 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. The junior forward is averaging only 4.7 points while going 5 of 17 from the floor over his last three matchups with Wichita State after scoring 15 in each of his first two career meetings.
Wednesday marked the fourth straight game in which Northern Iowa let its opponent score at least 76 points in regulation. The Panthers are allowing 80.4 points per game during their 2-5 stretch after previously limiting teams to a 67.1 average.
Despite their recent defensive struggles, they're shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range since going 5 of 24 against the Shockers.
Northern Iowa is 2-6 all-time against top 10 teams, last beating top-ranked Kansas in the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament.
The Panthers own a 25-23 series advantage.