Sleeping on a Darling From a March Past

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 19th, 2015

The return to anonymity was as swift as the introduction had been sudden. When Ali Farokhmanesh unleashed his ill-advised three-point attempt with 36 seconds to play in a 2010 round of 32 match-up with Kansas, Northern Iowa was a little known Missouri Valley outfit that had scrapped its way to 29 wins. But seconds later, after the brave long distance attempt found the bottom of the net and the Panthers were done toppling top-seeded Kansas, Ben Jacobson‘s team was a national sensation. It didn’t matter that his team’s season would end six days later against Michigan State — with that one shot, Northern Iowa had suddenly become the story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball's Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball’s Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Panthers’ 15 minutes of fame extended a bit beyond March that year – they won ‘Best Upset’ at the 2010 ESPYs several months later – but it wasn’t too long before most of the world (and this includes the segment that eats, sleeps and breathes college basketball) had forgotten about them. They won no more than 21 games in any of the four seasons that followed, with a 2012 first-round NIT loss standing as the most successful postseason run since ‘the shot.’ Like so many March darlings before them, they had been forced back to their post in the obscure outer regions of college hoops.

They’re now back. Most college basketball fans have taken note of this season’s Northern Iowa renaissance, but lets take a full inventory of what they have done to this point. After Wednesday night’s 58-39 victory at Loyola (IL), Jacobson’s team has won 14 in a row and sits at 25-2 on the season. On January 31, the Panthers handed Wichita State its worst loss (70-54) in over six years. Their two losses came in double-overtime at VCU and by three points at Evansville. They rank in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the AP poll and Ken Pom’s rankings list them as the 11th best team in the country. Things are not going badly for this group.

Notwithstanding all of that, there’s still a reticence from the public to embrace the Panthers as one of the best teams in the country. They fail the most vulgar version of the eye test: One look at the roster and it’s hard to believe they belong on the same tier as Louisville, North Carolina, Iowa State and even Wichita State. Almost every Panther was lightly recruited; they are relatively undersized (227th nationally in effective height), and their lone All-America candidate is a 6’7” power forward who has never wowed a soul with his athleticism. But Seth Tuttle is the perfect frontman for this band of overachievers – a hyper-intelligent grinder concerned only with making the right decisions. Faced with constant double-teams on Wednesday night, he quickly moved the ball to the right teammates time and time again. He ended the night with five assists, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he had only taken just seven shots. Loyola coach Porter Moser is a Tuttle fan: “He’s my favorite player in college basketball. I’m sure [Jacobson] never has to coach competitiveness or toughness with him. He is just totally in the moment of a game.”

Tuttle may be the front-runner for MVC Player of the Year, but Northern Iowa’s balance was more striking than his individual play against the Ramblers. In a low-scoring game, no player contributed more than 10 points but seven Panthers had at least six points. Trying to find a trace of ego on this team is as difficult as scoring on them (ask Loyola and its 0.72 points per possession about the latter task). There is nothing flashy or overwhelming about what they do, and no player other than Tuttle averages more than 8.5 points per game. This selfless approach is a major reason why Northern Iowa has won 25 of 27 games this season, but it’s also further explanation as to why national pundits are wary of believing in the Panthers. Intangibles are, by definition, not visible — some will always be skeptical of a team that doesn’t look the part.

But while America may be slow in picking up on what has made this team so special, their head coach is significantly less mystified. When asked what has made his Panthers so consistently good, Jacobson had this to say: “They’ve been really good about getting better, and that’s really the key: How much better can you get as your season goes along? This team is really good at that. They have the ability to let everything sit out the side and focus on each other. They’re having fun together, they’re coming to practice and they work. They’re just determined to get better. That’s hard to do.”

For those in need of a translation at home: This means that there is a 25-2 team out there that is really good at getting better. As fun as Farokhmanesh-mania was five years ago, maybe we should begin paying Northern Iowa some notice before the Sweet Sixteen appearance — these Panthers can ball.

BHayes (244 Posts)

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *