NORMAL -- It has been 306 days since Northern Iowa beat Illinois State in overtime in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game, but who's counting?
Well, Osiris Eldridge and many of his Redbird teammates.
"That probably was the most disappointing game in my career," said Eldridge, who ended up as the tourney's Most Outstanding Player in St. Louis.
ISU gets its chance for revenge Saturday -- and jump into a share of first place in the Valley. The Redbirds (12-3 overall, 3-1 Valley) take on UNI (13-1, 4-0) in a 3 p.m. game at Redbird Arena that will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
UNI comes in as one of the nation's hottest teams. The Panthers' 12-game winning streak is the fifth longest in the country. UNI tuned up for the Redbirds by routing Southern Illinois, 61-49, in Carbondale on Wednesday.
"I don't know if they have any weaknesses," said ISU coach Tim Jankovich.
The Panthers slipped past ISU in three games last season by a combined nine points, with two going to overtime. UNI returns its entire starting lineup and nine of its top 10 scorers.
The Redbirds, especially seniors Eldridge, Lloyd Phillips and Dinma Odiakosa, know exactly what lies ahead.
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"We need all the old guys to preach to the new guys how tough this game is going to be and how much fire and fight we're going to have to bring to win," said Eldridge. "I think they're buying into it."
UNI coach Ben Jacobson said he wasn't happy with how his team played or practiced early in the season.
The Panthers lost their second game to DePaul. But UNI slowly started to get it together, beating Boston College, Iowa State and Siena before Valley play began. In league action, the Panthers already have won at Creighton and SIU.
"Every year is a brand new year," said Jacobson. "Even though we've got seven guys back who were a big part of last year's team, every team is different. The guys who are back, their games are different. They've worked hard to make some improvements so they're not the same player they were a year ago."
UNI has started the same lineup its last 27 games. Senior forward Jake Koch has started 80 straight games and junior point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe 52 in a row. Ahelegbe's backcourt mates -- senior Ali Farokhmanesch and sophomore Johnny Moran -- have started all 48 games in their UNI careers.
The biggest difference in UNI this season comes in the middle. Senior Jordan Eglseder, a 7-foot, 280-pound center, has avoided nagging injuries and been more consistent, producing 13.1 points and a league-high 8.6 rebounds.
Eldridge, who leads the Valley in scoring with an 18.3 average, was ready to play this game Wednesday after ISU downed Evansville, 82-63, for its fifth victory in the last six games.
He isn't worried about being too hyped.
"You still have to be fired up and ready to go, but you have to play under control at the same time," said Eldridge, who electrified the Scottrade Center crowd in St. Louis last year with 19 second-half points against UNI.
Jankovich was glad he didn't see extra urgency in ISU's practices the last two days.
"I see that as a real positive because I would hate to think we're having big spikes depending on the opponent or however large we see the game," he said. "I don't see that in them. I see a group trying to get better each day."
Northern Iowa at Illinois State
Time: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Broadcasts: ESPN2, WJBC-AM (1230), WJEZ-FM (98. 9)
Northern Iowa vs. Illinois State
Time: 3 p.m.
Site: Redbird Arena, Normal
Broadcast: WJBC-AM (1230), WJEZ-FM (98.9)
Records: UNI 13-1, 4-0 Valley; ISU 12-3, 3-1
Series history/last meeting: ISU leads, 34-21 (UNI won 60-57 in overtime on March 6, 2009)
About the Panthers: UNI was picked to finish first in the Missouri Valley Conference in a preseason poll of league coaches, sports information directors and media. … Johnny Moran has overcome a slow start and is averaging almost four points more per game (9.5) in Missouri Valley action than his season average … Senior forward Lucas O’Rear was the Valley Sixth Man of the Year last season when he averaged 5.2 points and 5.5 rebounds. His numbers have slipped this season to 2.8 points and 3.6 rebounds … UNI has made 71 of 83 free throws in Valley games for an .855 percentage.
Next up: Wednesday vs. Evansville, 7:05 p.m.
Prediction: Northern Iowa 74, Illinois State 72
(Scoring, rebounding averages)
F – Adam Koch, 6-8, Sr. (13.3, 4.6); C – Jordan Eglseder, 7-0, Sr. (13.1, 8.6); G – Kwadzo Ahelegbe, 6-0, Jr. (12.0, 3.1); Ali Farokhmanesch, 6-0, Sr. (9.9, 1.3); Johnny Moran, 6-1, So. (5.9, 3.4).
F – Dinma Odiakosa, 6-8, Sr. (11.5, 7.8); Jackie Carmichael, 6-9, Fr. (8.6, 4.9); G – Osiris Eldridge, 6-3, Sr. (18.3, 3.9); Lloyd Phillips, 5-10, Sr. (10.9, 2.1); Alex Rubin, 6-1, Jr. (4.4, 1.1).