At the beginning of the season, the No. 11 Northern Iowa Panthers and Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions were not ranked. The season before, they finished a mere 16-15 and third in the MVC (as they had for the previous three seasons.) They were being bullied by teams like Wichita State and Creighton. Now the tides have shifted — Wichita State still being contenders, however — and the Panthers are in a prime position to run the table in the upcoming NCAA tournament, marking their first appearance since 2010.
Four seasons is a relatively long stretch to miss the tourney; it’s been a building period for the Ben Jacobson coached Panthers. But we can likely point to that last tournament appearance for their sudden resurgence. What makes that season so important isn’t that they made it into the bracket — 67 other teams joined them — it’s the team they beat in the second round of the Midwest region as an eight seed.
That team would be the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, the heavy-favorite to win it all in 2010. Was it as monumental an achievement as, say, fifteen seed Florida Gulf Coast beating a two seed, Georgetown, and bringing national attention to Dunk City in 2013? Not quite, but I think we’re beginning to see a trend of Cinderella teams become landing spots for recruits, reviving programs like Northern Iowa (and FGCU is on its way up.)
I won’t go as far to say recruits are as reactionary to commit to a school that wins a single tournament game, but winning those games is pivotal to gain attention. This month will mark the fifth anniversary of the Panthers’ upset over the Jayhawks and probably the first time any of Northern Iowa’s players really started to take the program seriously.
But if that one game were so important, you’d think the Panthers would have thrived in the ensuing seasons. However, that infamous roster that led the upset was comprised of mostly upperclassmen — three of its top four players being seniors. After that game, coach Jacobson could go to recruits and hang that tag of toppling powerhouse Kansas, and now it’s starting to pay dividends. It’s similar to what happened to Davidson after Steph Curry was brought to the spotlight and led them to an Elite Eight appearance in 2008.
Davidson was relatively unknown up until the 2007-2008 season, but after Curry became a nationally recognized name, recruits didn’t hesitate to listen to coach Bob McKillop about joining the program. After needing a few years to develop post-Curry, Davidson enjoyed two trips to the tournament and have now moved into the Atlantic 10 conference, looking for a bid this season.
The stories are a little different, yes, but the method of success is similar. Does every Cinderella team work out this well? No, it’s not magic, and Jacobson realizes that. He didn’t try to change his coaching style or recruit players that don’t match his system. The season of the 2010 tournament, Northern Iowa ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency (second in points allowed) but 82nd in offense. This season they rank 22nd yet again in defense but have improved their offense to 26th in the nation.
Jacobson has been coaching a patient roster and now has them working at their peak. They struggled last season as a young team, but their top five scoring and rebounding players are back this season, all juniors or seniors including senior forward Seth Tuttle. Five years ago he committed to Northern Iowa on March 18th, the same day the Panthers won over Kansas. Coincidence? Maybe…but definitely something that gave him a ringing approval of the program.
Tuttle is now considered one of the top players in the nation, averaging over fifteen points and seven rebounds a game and leading the team in most statistical categories. What followed for Tuttle after joining the Panthers was a string of disappointing seasons for the team, but he’s joined by fellow seniors Deon Mitchell and Nate Buss. They’ve matured in their games and lead a defensively minded, and now championship, team.
Now the question of how far the program can continue reaching remains. Will they go through another rebuilding period after losing three of their top players this season? Of course, what happens to them in the tournament this month will be of some consideration. They have four commitments for next year lined up already and have two four-stars in consideration. With Iowa State rising to prominence in state as well, it will probably be a battle between those two in the tournament to see who has the most pull in the state (not to mention region, considering Wisconsin’s powerhouse status as well.)
But the best question to ask now: which team will rise like Northern Iowa next?