During the last several years, college basketball has appeared to have seen boosts in parity, as several “mid-majors” have had success, despite not being from a power conference. This may be somewhat deceiving, however, because only a handful of teams have managed to build consistent programs which are, year in and year out, the class of non-power conference basketball. Teams like Wichita State, Virginia Commonwealth, Gonzaga, San Diego State, and, formerly, Georgetown’s newest conference foe, Butler, managed to achieve sustained success in a way few other “mid-majors” have.
It may soon be time to add another school to that list. In this week’s edition of the AP Top 25, Northern Iowa, boasting a 26-2 record, rose to the tenth slot.
UNI has come a long way since the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when the ninth-seeded Panthers upset the #1 overall seed Kansas, led by a clutch 16 points, including a dagger three in the game’s final seconds, by Ali Farokhmanesh, who has taken on a Voldemort-like status of “he who must not be named” status among Jayhawk fans. This year, they’re not taking anyone by surprise.
The Panthers’ game plan under coach Ben Jacobson is simple: play good defense and take high percentage shots. UNI is fourth in the nation in points allowed and fourteenth in field goal percentage. Much of this can be credited to an extremely low tempo style of play, ranking 349th out of 351 teams in possessions per game, even ranking one slot below #2 Virginia, who have irritated many basketball fans with their slowness play. The Panthers don’t win pretty, but they win.
This UNI squad is suited very well to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Aside from their slow tempo, they still have their stifling defense, which is very conducive to stopping the hot streaks on which tournament teams rely. Their roster is very deep, with nine players playing significant minutes and averaging at least 5 points per game, which, considering that they will likely be a #3 or #4 seed, will be very advantageous against the lesser teams they would face prior to the Sweet 16. They are led by star power forward Seth Tuttle, who averages 16 points and 7 rebounds per game, and has emerged as a dark horse in the Naismith Player of the Year conversation.
The Panthers, while only boasting one win over an RPI Top 50 team, a convincing win against #12 Wichita State, have a 6-1 record against RPI Top 100 teams and have a chance to bolster their resume when they travel to Wichita to face the Shockers again on February 28.
UNI’s first loss came in heartbreaking fashion; losing at #22 VCU in double overtime. The Panthers went on to open Missouri Valley Conference play with a 52-49 loss at Evanston. Since this bad loss, the Panthers have rattled off 15 straight against conference foes.
More significant in the long term, it seems as if this season is not a flash in the pan. Coach Ben Jacobson, while having received offers from more big-time programs, is under contract until 2020 and has made it known that he wishes to remain at UNI. With the prominence that UNI has had this season and a potential tournament run come March, this season could be the foundation for building a program with sustained success. Simply put, these Panthers aren’t going away anytime soon.
Photo: John S. Peterson/Icon SM