OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) For years, Shaka Smart could play the underdog card as Virginia Commonwealth’s coach.
Smart’s mid-major program beat the big boys all the way to the 2011 Final Four, and his VCU squads won two NCAA Tournament games in 2012 and 2013.
Now, he’s in his first year at Big 12 member Texas. And for the first time, Smart leads the Goliath from the Power Five conference against the mid-major in March. Texas (20-12), seeded sixth in the West Region, plays No. 11 seed Northern Iowa (22-12) Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Northern Iowa won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
”Hopefully, our guys understand Northern Iowa’s a dangerous team,” Smart said. ”You look at them, they’ve won 12 out of the last 13 games. They’re defending at an extremely high level and they can shoot at every spot. So hopefully, if you really look closely, you realize it’s not about what league the team came from, it’s about what they do on the court.”
One of the best matchups will be between the guards. Texas’ Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix will try to slow down Northern Iowa’s Wes Washpun.
Washpun averaged 16.3 points in the MVC conference tournament and hit the game-winner against Evansville that put the Panthers into the NCAA Tournament.
”So far, we know he’s an athletic point guard,” Taylor said. ”He drives a lot. He’s a strong, left-handed driver, and he can also pull up for the jumper. We know that he’s a good player.”
Taylor averages 14.8 points and 4.9 assists. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.7 to 1. Felix averages 10.6 points and 2.2 assists.
”Extremely talented offensive players,” Washpun said. ”They get pretty much wherever they want on the court, from what I’ve seen so far from watching film.”
Here are five things to watch as Texas and Northern Iowa meet for the first time:
RIDLEY’S STATUS: Cameron Ridley, Texas’ 6-foot-10 center, missed much of the season with a broken foot, then played two minutes in the conference tournament loss to Baylor after having not played since Dec. 19. He averages 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.
”I go by what the athletic trainer and doctor says,” Smart said. ”So I’m not guaranteeing he’ll play that much. It’s based on two things: his availability and how the game is going.”
SIMILAR WINS: Both teams have victories over North Carolina and Iowa State. Texas beat North Carolina 84-82 on Dec. 12. Northern Iowa beat the Tar Heels on Nov. 21 when they were ranked No. 1.
ON THE RISE: Northern Iowa was 10-11 after losing to Illinois State on Jan. 23. Since then, the Panthers are 12-1 and haven’t allowed more than 69 points in a game. Texas has five wins over ranked teams since the start of the new year.
TEMPO CONTROL: Texas prefers a bit quicker pace than Northern Iowa and takes 5.6 shots per game more than the Panthers. Northern Iowa is more efficient and averages just 9.8 turnovers per game.
HISTORY: Texas has reached the Sweet 16 five times in the past 14 years, but not since 2008. Northern Iowa beat UNLV and Kansas in the 2010 tournament in Oklahoma City for its only trip to the Sweet 16. The Panthers beat Wyoming in last year’s tournament.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP