SPRINGFIELD, Mo | If you wanted to make a case study about how quickly a college basketball season can turn, Northern Iowa and Missouri State would likely make good test subjects.
Back on Dec. 10, everything was coming up rosy for the Panthers, who were 8-2 and getting serious at-large NCAA Tournament consideration, thanks to a difficult schedule that put them among the top-20 in RPI.
And despite a 9-3 record, a Missouri State team tabbed as the preseason favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference looked to have serious questions following an upset loss to an Oral Roberts team which, to that point, had only beaten one Division I opponent.
But as the two teams prepare to do battle in Springfield Thursday, it's safe to say the mood around each team has changed significantly in the last three weeks.
In that time, UNI has proceeded to lose four in a row. This includes a surprising 0-2 start in Valley play, highlighted by a 72-53 loss at Bradley Sunday, in which the Panthers allowed baskets on nine consecutive possessions in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Bears are 3-0 in that time and are one of three teams with a perfect 2-0 mark in the MVC.
After slugging out a 64-59 win over fellow Valley contender Loyola, Missouri State earned a resounding 67-50 win at Valparaiso on Sunday, behind a balanced offensive effort that saw four starters score in double-figures.
And while none of the momentum appears to be on his squad's side at the moment, Panther Coach Ben Jacobson remains confident that he and his staff are just a few small tweaks away from righting the ship.
"There's nothing we can possibly do to change the results of the first two games," Jacobson said. "We just have to get better fundamentally so our team can improve. That's the way to get better."
Doing so won't come easy Thursday, as UNI will be tasked with containing arguably the best player in the league.
Named the MVC's Preseason Player of the Year, Alize Johnson has so far lived up to that lofty billing, averaging 14.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. His nine double-doubles are the sixth most in the country.
Johnson had two double-doubles against UNI a season ago, including a 20-point, 17-rebound performance in the Valley Tournament quarterfinals, where the Bears ended the Panthers' season with a 70-64 win.
The Bears have also benefited from having one of the more productive newcomers in the league in Reggie Scurry, whose 9.9 points per game are the most among any bench player in the Valley.
A week ago, this matchup likely would have had the feel of a potential Arch Madness title game, as the Bears and Panthers were projected to finish 1-2 in the Valley heading into the season.
And while that narrative may have changed in the eyes of some, one prominent UNI player still views Thursday's game as a battle of conference elites, and believes it could prove to be precursor of things to come.
"I still have faith in us that we're the best team in the conference," senior center Bennett Koch said. "We've had a couple of bad games, but it's not like we're having a bad season. These last couple of games, no doubt we've struggled, but I think it's just a matter of time before we bounce back and do what we do."
NO LIMITATIONS: After playing through a back injury at Bradley, Spencer Haldeman returned to practice without limitation on Tuesday. It was the first time the sophomore guard had practiced in six days.
"He looked even better today in terms of the way he was moving than he did at Bradley," Jacobson said.
SUSPENSION UPHELD: Missouri State reserve Tanveer Bhullar, who has been out of action since a Dec. 22 police incident, will remain suspended indefinitely, according to a report by the Springfield News-Leader.
Bhullar suspension came after he was suspected of stealing $1,500 during a party. He was averaging 3.1 points and 2.5 rebounds in 11 games this season.
Teammate Darian Scott, who was also suspended for his role in the incident, had his suspension lifted. Scott has yet to suit up for the Bears this season.