Mid-major power N Iowa grabs national spotlight
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is fine with the fact that the Panthers are one of the feel-good stories of the NCAA tournament.
It's not entirely fair, though, to label Northern Iowa an underdog or upstart.
The Panthers have been one of the nation's top mid-major programs for nearly a decade, long before they ousted top-seeded Kansas 69-67 in the second round on Saturday.
``When hear you people, the media, still calling it a Cinderella and one of the biggest upsets ever, we don't really look it at like it was a miracle that we won the game. We feel like we compete with everybody,'' senior forward Adam Koch said.
Northern Iowa (30-4) has reached the NCAA tournament in five of the past seven years. All that was missing from its resume was a victory, but after losing four first-round games in a row - each by five points, strangely enough - the Panthers broke through last weekend with wins over UNLV and Kansas.
Ninth-seeded Northern Iowa takes on fifth-seeded Michigan State (26-8) in the Midwest Region semifinals Friday night in St. Louis.
``I think in some ways it certainly applies to what we're doing right now,'' Jacobson said Monday of the Cinderella label. ``The thing that I feel like maybe is a little bit different, having been to five of the last seven NCAA tournaments, people nationally have known about our program. People who have seen us play, they have a lot of respect for what we've done over the course of the last seven years.''
But still, outside of the Missouri Valley Conference, Northern Iowa doesn't have much name recognition.
It is a public school of about 13,000 undergrads in sleepy Cedar Falls, a small city surrounded by farms and neighboring Waterloo, about 2 hours northeast of Des Moines.
For pop culture buffs, it's where Julia Roberts' character hid out in the 1991 film ``Sleeping With The Enemy.'' Sports fans might remember it as where NFL star Kurt Warner played his college ball.
Save for an upset of third-seeded Missouri in an opening-round game in 1990, Northern Iowa's hoops team hadn't made much of a splash outside of Iowa until they hired Greg McDermott, who brought his close friend Jacobson as an assistant, before the 2001-02 season.
McDermott led the Panthers to 21 wins and the Missouri Valley tournament title in just his third season. As a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tourney, Northern Iowa threw a scare into Georgia Tech before falling, 65-60.
Northern Iowa made it back to the NCAAs in 2004-05 as an 11th seed, losing to Wisconsin 57-52. The Panthers won 23 games in 2005-06, their last before McDermott left for Iowa State, before falling to Georgetown in the first round.
Expectations weren't particularly high for Northern Iowa heading into 2008-09, though. After a 6-6 start, some wondered if Northern Iowa's brief run as a mid-major darling was over. But the Panthers - who've played essentially the same starting five for two years now - clicked during a road trip early in conference play.
They won at league powers Southern Illinois and Creighton in a seven-day stretch and rattled off an 11-game winning streak that lifted them to a share of the league title and earned Jacobson coach of the year honors in the league.
``Those two games really changed their confidence. It really changed their approach. They felt like that, at that point, we were going to be able to win games, we could beat good teams. We could beat them at home, we could beat them on the road,'' Jacobson said. ``Those seven days, I think, really helped our team from a confidence standpoint.''
The Panthers are a veteran group, made up of players from small Midwestern towns who weren't exactly blue-chippers coming out of high school.
Ali Farokhmanesh, whose gutsy 3 to fell Kansas is now the stuff of NCAA tournament lore, played at two Iowa junior colleges before landing with the Panthers.
Senior center Jordan Eglseder is from tiny Bellevue and was the first 7-footer to sign with the Panthers. He struggled to stay healthy until this season, when improved dieting and conditioning led to his best year yet.
The Koch brothers, Valley player of the year Adam and freshman Jake, hail from Ashwaubenon, Wis, and super sub Lucas O'Rear starred for his high school in remote Nashville, Ill., before finding his place as a spark plug off the bench.
``We might not have the most talented team here. But coach (Jacobson) and the coaches do a great job of recruiting players that want to come here and get better and work hard,'' O'Rear said. ``This is like a big family.''
Jacobson, who played at North Dakota, hasn't deviated much from McDermott's balanced, defensive-minded philosophy - even as the Panthers failed to reach the NCAA tournament in either of his first two seasons. He's also maintained a steady demeanor that has rubbed off on his players and was evident when the Panthers withstood a furious rally from the Jayhawks in the closing moments Saturday.
``He's very even keel, and I think that's an important trait in a head coach,'' McDermott said.
Except for an early loss to DePaul, the Panthers have lived up to lofty expectations this season. They cruised to a 15-3 mark in the Missouri Valley and rolled to three straight wins in the conference tournament by double digits.
This is clearly the best team Northern Iowa has ever had, but it certainly didn't come together overnight.
``(McDermott) came in and really established a foundation. With Ben being on his staff, he was then able to build that foundation. We didn't have to change our philosophy. We didn't have to change the type of kids we recruit,'' Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen said. ``At a mid-major, when you have a level of success, it's almost unheard of to be able to maintain that.''
The Panthers will get another chance to measure that success against Michigan State - and they will be an underdog again.