Tywhom Pickford plays an unorthodox small forward for Northern Iowa's men's basketball team.

The 6-foot-4, 202-pound freshman guard is the nation's top rebounder under 6-5 at 9.3 per game, and gives the Panthers (8-4) just over eight points a game on average (8.4). His 9.3 boards a game are second in the Missouri Valley Conference entering Thursday night's league opener against SIU (8-5).

"He's off to a terrific start. He's been able to get a lot of big things done," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "I've been impressed with his feel at the offensive end, his feel on the floor. He's shot it OK. I think he's capable of shooting it better than he's shot it the last couple weeks. For a guy that's a true freshman, to rebound at that level he's at, and able to pass at this level, has been really good."

Pickford gave out a season-high four assists in Northern Iowa's loss to sixth-ranked Xavier Friday, grabbed five rebounds and scored two points in 26 minutes. He has grabbed five rebounds in his last three games and is still averaging over nine a game because he got 18, to go with 18 points, in a win over North Carolina State, 14 against Chicago State, 10 against Villanova and 12 against UNLV. With senior forward Bennett Koch (15.1 points, 7.4 rebounds per game), Pickford gives the Panthers an interesting frontline, along with 6-7 forward Klint Carlson, who is 14 of 43 from the 3-point line (32.6 percent).

With 6-7 guard Isaiah Brown, a sophomore that played in 26 games last year mostly off the bench, the Panthers own the nation's eighth-best scoring defense (60.5 points allowed per game). Only three teams all season have hit 70 against Northern Iowa, Xavier (77-67 win for the Musketeers), Iowa State (76-65 win) and ninth-ranked North Carolina Nov. 10 (86-69 win).

The Panthers have struggled to board (they've been outrebounded in four of their last five games) and don't produce a ton of steals, but have limited opponents to less than 38 percent from the field (37.5).

"It's the same Northern Iowa, just a different way," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "With the exception of Koch and Carlson. It's not (former guard Matt) Bohannon, it's (Spencer) Haldeman. It's not (former guard Wes) Washpun, it's (Juwan) McCloud. It's Pickford now. They do a great job recruiting to their system. They've played one less game than us and shot 41 more 3s. Very few of them shoot free throws except one, and he shoots a ton, and that's Koch."

Koch, a preseason all-conference first team pick, is playing like a player of the year candidate. The 6-10, 239-pound righty is shooting 59.2 percent from the field, 80.8 percent at the stripe (59 of 73) and leads the team with 10 blocks. No other Panther has more than 22 free throw attempts.

Jacobson said Koch has been a lot more consistent his final season.

"He has been terrific at practice. He's had, maybe, four or five practices since we've started that weren't at the level that's required by an older guy," Jacobson said. "Maybe four or five that he's not talking, leading or communicating like a fifth-year senior. The N.C. State game and the Iowa State game that was in Des Moines, he wasn't sharp, so, he's just been far more consistent."

SIU is still looking for its first win at the McLeod Center (0-11). The 6,650-seat facility opened in 2007.

Scouting the Northern Iowa Panthers (8-4, RPI 32)

Hometown: Cedar Falls, Iowa

Coach: Ben Jacobson (242-138 at UNI, 242-138 overall)

Leading scorers: F Bennett Koch 15.1 ppg., G Juwan McCloud 10 ppg.

Leading rebounders: G Tywhon Pickford 9.3 rpg., F Bennett Koch 7.4 rpg., F Klint Carlson 5.6 rpg.

Notes: Two of SIU's worst scoring efforts in school history have happened here in Cedar Falls in the last two years. The Salukis scored 39 points in a loss in 2015, and 41 points in February this year. Both were under Hinson, obviously. ... SIU is 21-7 at home against Northern Iowa, and 7-21 away from Carbondale. ... MVC openers matter, historically. Since 1993-94, only one team has won at least a share of the Valley regular-season title without winning its league opener (Northern Iowa was the co-champion in 2008-09 after losing its first conference game). The regular-season champ has started 2-0 or better 23 times in the last 25 years, with Northern Iowa and Wichita State (2011-12) the exceptions. Northern Iowa plays at Bradley after hosting SIU. The Salukis host Drake Sunday.

todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com

618-351-5087

On Twitter: @THefferman

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