ST. LOUIS — Northern Iowa has an immovable anchor inside with a feathery touch from outside. Its point guard is a pull-on-the-leash pitbull, another guard an unflinching giant killer. The roster is filled with interchangeable parts, one seemingly a better 3-point shooter than the next.
The Panthers have been called underdogs, Cinderellas, a mid-major with all those smirky, negative connotations.
None fit anymore.
Northern Iowa (30-4) is just good. Not small-conference good. Not might-pull-off-an-upset good. Flat-out good, enough to stare down big programs, not bow to them.
So when the ninth-seeded Panthers take the floor against No. 5 Michigan State (26-8) on Friday, it won't be as underdogs. Northern Iowa has earned the right to be called equals, maybe even favorites with all the injuries the Spartans have.
"We feel we can play with everybody," Northern Iowa senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh said Thursday.
Northern Iowa established its foundation in 2004, starting a run of three straight NCAA appearances. The Panthers got back to the NCAA tournament last season and topped it this year, winning their first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title, another conference tournament crown and their highest NCAA seeding ever.
That was just the start.
Northern Iowa pulled off a minor upset in the NCAA opener, taking out No. 8 seed UNLV on Farokhmanesh's 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left. The Panthers topped that with the NCAA's biggest bracket buster in years, knocking off top overall seed Kansas in the second round on another 3-pointer by Farokhmanesh that will go down as one of the biggest shots in program history.
Now, an entire nation of basketball fans knows about the mid-major from tiny Cedar Falls that plays defense like a pack of hyenas. They know about Big-shot Ali, physical-but-still-delicate 7-footer Jordan Eglseder, relentless point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, all those shooters whose range seems to extend to halfcourt.
They know, just like Michigan State does, how good this mid-major monster has become.
"Northern Iowa is a very good team," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I've said in this tournament, since I've been in it, when you win your first game it can be lucky, but when you get to the Sweet 16, you're probably pretty good."
Health issues will make it tough on the Spartans to knock off Northern Iowa.
Michigan State lost its best player against Maryland in the second round, when point guard Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon. He was the Big Ten player of the year in 2008-09, Michigan State's leading scorer, assists leader, its go-to guy.
Worse yet, Chris Allen, the team's best 3-point shooter, has an injured right foot and forward Delvon Roe is bothered by a sore right knee. Allen and Roe made it through a few drills in practice Thursday, but may still limited against Northern Iowa.
"It means a lot any time to any team, regardless of what sport it is, when you lose your floor general or quarterback, whatever it may be," Michigan State sophomore forward Draymond Green said. "But the show must go on. We have to play without him, we've prepared without him."
The Spartans are used to it.
Michigan State has historically handled adversity well, and it survived a 2009-10 season full of injuries, suspensions and benchings to reach the round of 16 for the third consecutive year and ninth time in 13 seasons.
When Lucas went down against Maryland, Durrell Summers picked up the scoring with 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting and Korie Lucious, Lucas' sophomore replacement, hit the winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to earn the nickname "Magic Johnson Jr." by Izzo.
Michigan State may be down, but don't count the Spartans out.
"We know they're going to be ready to go — it's a big game for everybody," Northern Iowa forward Adam Koch said. "(Lucas) is a great player, and it's tough for them to lose him, but we don't expect him to lie down by any means."
Today's games at St. Louis
(6) Tennessee vs. (2) Ohio State, 5:07 p.m.(9) Northern Iowa vs. (5) Michigan State, 7:37 p.m.