DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -Northern Iowa isn't going to talk about how important this week is.
The Panthers don't really have to, though.
No. 24 Northern Iowa (19-2, 10-1 MVC) can essentially start clearing space in the McLeod Center rafters for a Missouri Valley title banner if they can sweep this week's home games against Wichita State and Southern Illinois (12-9, 4-7).
The Panthers enter Wednesday's showdown with the second-place Shockers (19-4, 8-3) with a two-game lead in the league standings. A win would make it a three-game cushion with six games left - a huge margin in a league where only Wichita State looms as a serious threat to Northern Iowa.
Panthers coach Ben Jacobson is certainly aware of the stakes. But he also knows that his team's one-game-at-time mindset is a major reason why they're in such great shape to begin with.
``We continued to approach it the way that we have to this point. Really, getting ready for each day of practice, trying to have the best practice we can,'' he said. ``Because we do have some experience on this team ... these guys are really able to take things in stride.''
That's been evident over the past three games. Since their only league loss at Wichita State, 60-51 on Jan. 19, the Panthers have since reasserted themselves.
Northern Iowa won at Indiana State, 67-58, and crushed Drake at home, 67-51, to snap the Bulldogs' five-game winning streak. The Panthers were down by four at Missouri State with 1:38 left before rallying to win, 55-54.
While the Panthers are in a position to win the Missouri Valley, Wichita State is a contender for an at-large NCAA tournament bid with a 13-0 record at home and that pivotal win over Northern Iowa. Wichita State rolled out to a 12-point halftime lead and held the Panthers to just 2-of-13 shooting from 3-point range, ending Northern Iowa's 15-game winning streak and briefly knocking them out of the Top 25.
``They do a good job of not allowing you to get a lot of easy looks at the basket. That's a real key for them defensively, is their ability to take away the easy looks that you might get,'' Jacobson said of Wichita State. ``They rebound the basketball real well, so you don't get very many second opportunities, and because of that, your offense has to be sharp.''
a win at Northern Iowa would given them the signature road victory they lack.
``You don't have luxury of being about .500 in your league or being in eighth place and still getting in,'' Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. ``It's hard place to play, so it would be a very, very good win.''
The eight Valley teams behind Northern Iowa and the Shockers all entered this week with at least five losses. Barring a collapse by Northern Iowa and a near-miraculous run by an unforeseen challenger, the Valley's regular-season title will go to either the Panthers or Wichita State - and Wednesday's game is huge.
``Realistically, we have a chance to catch them, but that's going to be very difficult,'' Marshall said. ``It would be almost impossible if we don't beat them at their place.''
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