Depth helps No. 14 Northern Iowa excel on basketball court
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson needed only a few games to realize he had a problem on his hands.
Too many players weren't getting their usual minutes. It hadn't resulted in a loss, but Jacobson knew he needed to address it.
''I said `Look, guys. You're either going to be OK with this - 15 to 25 (minutes) for eight or nine guys - and make this work and we can get really good. Or it's going to hold us back,'' Jacobson said.
Too much depth turned out to be a good problem for Northern Iowa. By embracing it, the No. 14 Panthers have emerged as one of the nation's most surprising teams.
Three of Northern Iowa's top six scorers have yet to start a game this season. High-profile transfer guards Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson, dependable senior Nate Buss and rising freshman Wyatt Lohaus have provided the Panthers with the kind of quality bench play that's rare at the mid-major level.
Northern Iowa (21-2, 10-1) has won 10 straight while climbing to a school-best 14th in the AP Top 25 as it prepares to host Drake on Saturday.
''It's just a big thing about sacrificing for the team,'' Jesperson said. ''It's just buying into the fact that we're something bigger than ourselves.''
Northern Iowa's remarkable bench has been is keyed by Washpun, a former starter who initially balked at a reserve role. It's since turned out to be the best thing for both Washpun and the Panthers.
Washpun is second on the team at 9.1 points a game on 51.5-percent shooting - and he's actually still playing more than starting point guard Deon Mitchell.
Washpun's ability to attack the basket and excel in transition is a crucial aspect for a team known for a deliberate offense. He's also toned down his once-notorious intensity.
''Last year it hurt us. Now, 95 percent of the time he's got us going in the right direction, and that has an impact on his teammates,'' Jacobson said. ''When you've got a fire and you're willing to show it, that impacts your team. When you bring a guy off the bench like that? It's huge.''
Jesperson, a junior who started 33 games at Virginia two years ago, said he initially found it tough to shift to a bench role. But he's been markedly efficient while playing just 19 minutes a game.
Jesperson is shooting 41.2 percent from 3-point range and 85.7 percent from the line, and his eight turnovers are the lowest of anyone in the Panthers' rotation.
Buss, a 6-foot-9 senior, has epitomized the homegrown role players who've been invaluable to Northern Iowa over the last dozen years.
Buss, who grew up in nearby Charles City, gives the Panthers a defensive presence in the paint while stretching out opponents with his ability to hit 3-pointers. Buss has hit 23 3s on just 53 tries, good for third-best on the team.
Lohaus, the son of longtime NBA player Brad Lohaus, has been blocked at times by the talented upperclassmen in his way. But the two late 3s he hit to help Northern Iowa beat Stephen F. Austin on the road showed why he's considered one of the brighter young talents.
''The thing that coach has shown this season is that he's going to the guys that are hot,'' Jesperson said. ''The team is so deep, that any five that's out on the court on the night they're playing well gives us a great shot.''
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