Northern Iowa hasn’t finished above .500 or appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2016, and it’s unclear if things will end any better in 2020. Last year, UNI had a successful non-conference, picking up wins over North Carolina State, SMU, UNLV and UT Arlington, and it will hope to do that again to build momentum for the Missouri Valley portion of its season.
This time around, the Panthers will have at least two shots at power-conference competition, with matchups against some of the best mid-major programs, too.
To start the season, Northern Iowa will welcome Old Dominion to Cedar Falls on Nov. 5. The Monarchs graduated two stars in BJ Stith and Ahmad Caver from their NCAA Tournament team a year ago, but they’re still expected to be in the top half of Conference USA and potentially make a run at the title and another conference tournament crown. The Panthers have another big mid-major opponent coming to McLeod Center in November as CSU Bakersfield will be in town Nov. 13. The Roadrunners have finished with winning records in three of the last four years, and Rod Barnes should have his team in the top half of the WAC once again.
Northern Iowa will have its first date with a power-conference foes Nov. 26 in Cancun as it battles West Virginia in the Cancun Challenge. The Mountaineers had a terrible go of it last season, but things should be better for them after a bit of a cleansing of the roster and some talent among their returning ranks.
UNI will play either South Carolina or Wichita State the following day in its second game depending on results, either providing the team with another major-conference showdown or a huge matchup with a former conference rival in Wichita State. The two programs played for the first time in the 1977-78 season and have met 54 times in total, with Northern Iowa holding a 29-25 advantage over the Shockers.
Shortly after that event, UNI will head west to Boulder to play Colorado on Dec. 10 in its other scheduled game versus power-conference competition. The Buffaloes should be one of the better teams in the Pac-12 this season, essentially bringing back everyone and losing no one from the 2018-19 team. The team is fifth in the country in returning minutes and showed serious promise in the later part of last season, going 12-4 from the start of February on, including two wins in the Pac-12 Tournament and NIT each.
The Panthers has to win at least one game against marquee competition in the non-conference to have any real hope at an at-large bid and potentially more than one if the Valley is weak enough. But the opportunities will be there, and even if they don’t come, these games can provide Northern Iowa will invaluable experience that will help prepare it for Missouri Valley play and Arch Madness.