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Don’t overlook the UNI Panthers in 2016-17

(Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

One of the most memorable moments from last season’s NCAA tournament was the University of Northern Iowa Panthers against the Texas A&M Aggies in the Round of 32.

The Panthers were up 12 points with 44 seconds left in regulation. However, UNI choked away the lead and Texas A&M would wound up winning in double overtime, 92-88. The loss signaled the end of the careers of seniors Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson, who were the heart and soul of last season’s team.

Over the past two years, UNI has been the Wichita State Shockers’ top challenger with a second-place finish in 2015 and a championship in the Missouri Valley tournament last season. But with Washpun, Bohannon and Jesperson departing from Cedar Falls, along with having to break in 11 new players — including seven who are in their first year with the Panthers — one would assume that UNI will have a down year. But regardless of the exponential turnover, you should never count out a Ben Jacobson-led team.

While the losses are significant, the Panthers do return guard senior Jeremy Morgan.

The past three years, Morgan has been a supporting actor for UNI. But the 2016-17 season will see Morgan step into the lead role.

“[Morgan] has had just a tremendous career to this point,” Jacobson said during the Panther’s media day. “I would tell you I’m very proud of what Jeremy has done. On the floor, that is important to what we’re trying to get done when we talk competitively, but I’m more proud of what Jeremy’s done in terms of growing and changing and developing into the kind of leader that he is for our program.”

Last season, Morgan’s role saw expanded growth. The 6-foot-5 Coralville, Iowa, native averaged 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds — career bests — per game while being excellent on the defensive end. He led the Missouri Valley in steals (1.94 per game) and blocked 32 shots while often guarding the opposing team’s best player.

If Morgan’s performance in UNI’s last game, 36 points against the Aggies, the senior guard should be a force to be reckoned with the conference.

While UNI will rely heavily on Morgan’s leadership, he won’t be the only player mentoring the youthful Panthers.

UNI brings in Iowa State graduate transfer guard Jordan Ashton. The former Cyclone didn’t see that much time in an Iowa State uniform, but while at Kirkwood Community College, Ashton averaged 16.4 points per game and was a JUCO All-American. Along with Ashton, the Panthers return juniors Klint Carlson, Bennett Koch, Wyatt Lohaus and Ted Friedman — all of whom have been around the program for several years now.

Carlson had a strong second-half of the 2015-16 season, so he looks to continue that momentum. And with Koch, the 6-foot-10 center had some big games last season. However, he will need to become a more consistent threat for the Panthers this year.

While UNI does return a small amount of experience (however talented), the Panthers bring in a wealth of skill — primarily at the point guard position. UNI has redshirt freshman Spencer Haldeman, Kirkwood Community College transfer Hunter Rhodes and first-year freshman Juwan McCloud.

“Juwan is a tremendously talented young guy. As soon as he gets that ball in his hands, at least for me, it immediately feels like something good is about to happen, something fun is about to happen,” Jacobson said. “And then Hunter Rhodes, he’s got a couple years of experience, so you’ve got a guy who’s a little bit older. As we’ve gone along … he’s taken on a little more responsibility and gotten a little more comfortable. You’re starting to see why he led his team to a national championship last year.”

And with McCloud, he is a dangerous 3-pointer shooter — which has been UNI’s motto on offense over the past few seasons.

“He can really get going, can really shoot the basketball, and obviously we’re going to need that with Jesperson and Bohannon having graduated,” Jacobson said.

Meanwhile, UNI’s schedule is challenging this season. The Panthers play the likes of Xavier, Wyoming and North Carolina on the road and Iowa and Arizona State on neutral courts in Des Moines for the Hy-Vee Big 4 Classic and the Puerto Rico Tip-off. However, UNI is known for winning big-time games. Last season, the Panthers defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina at home, Iowa State on a neutral court and mid-major powerhouse Stephen F. Austin.

While UNI does have minimal experience entering this year, it isn’t the only team losing key players. Missouri Valley goliath Wichita State lost the likes of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. So that benefits the Panthers’ chances of being competitive in league play this season.

Yes, UNI did lose players responsible for 67 percent of its 283 3-point baskets, 59.4 percent of its assists and and 53 percent of its overall scoring. However, with returning leadership, incoming talent and Jacobson’s coaching — he has a 65.3 overall winning percentage and 63.3 conference winning percentage in 11 years as the head man of the Panthers — UNI should be just fine during the 2016-17 season.

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