No wow, just wins for upstart Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson knows his team doesn't bring much ``wow factor'' to the NCAA tournament.
That hasn't kept the Panthers from coming back again and again.
For the fifth time in the past seven years, Northern Iowa (28-4) is in the field, riding the nation's second stingiest defense into Thursday night's game against eighth-seeded UNLV. What the Panthers don't have is an offense that can fill up a highlights show.
``With our basketball team, there isn't a lot of that,'' Jacobson said Wednesday. ``We try to be very consistent. We try to defend at a high level and rebound the basketball and take advantage of what opportunities present themselves at the offensive end.
``I think our consistency has probably been our biggest strength and that's something that just doesn't really jump out at you.''
Only Winthrop, which lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the opening game Tuesday, made it into the NCAA tournament while scoring less than the Panthers' 63.3-point average. None of the Panthers average more than 7-footer Jordan Eglseder's 12 points per game.
But UNI makes up for it by holding opponents to a mere 54.3 points, and only one foe has eclipsed the 70-point mark this season.
``Really, we've got to find guys that are unselfish and care about winning. That's really the bottom line,'' Jacobson said. ``We've been very fortunate to find guys that care about winning and that are unselfish. Because of that, they do the things that it takes to be part of a winning program.
``They've got to be able to play a little bit, yeah, but they've got to care about winning.''
The next step is trying to take that success to the next level. While Northern Iowa has been a regular in the NCAAs, the school is hoping to snap a string of four straight first-round exits and get to the second round for the first time since upsetting third-seeded Missouri 20 years ago.
Last year, the Panthers were seeded 12th and fell behind Purdue by 10 points early in the first half and then closed the gap late in a 61-56 loss.
``There's just a little bit different feel the second time that we've been doing this,'' forward Adam Koch said. ``I think last year, there was a lot of excitement just kind of getting there. ... This year, it's a little different feeling. I don't think we're overwhelmed at all or just kind of happy to be a part of it. I think we're a little more focused this year.''
After missing the tournament last year, the Runnin' Rebels (25-8) are back in the field for the third time in four years and trying to continue coach Lon Kruger's streak of five straight first-round victories. One of only eight coaches to take four different teams to the NCAA tournament, Kruger was 3-0 in the first round at Illinois and 2-0 so far at UNLV.
``He's a great coach,'' said guard Tre'Von Willis, averaging a team-high 17.3 points for the Rebels. ``He definitely knows what he's doing. He puts players in opportunities to make plays and when you have a coach that believes in your ability and can give you the motivation to go out and execute it, it gets no greater than that.''
The Runnin' Rebels, who average 73.3 points, will try to live up to their name and push the tempo against Northern Iowa. UNLV is 22-2 when reaching that 70-point plateau and 3-6 when scoring less.
``Coach Jacobson's group, they do a great job,'' Kruger said. ``They don't give up points. They're very stingy. They don't give up many good looks, so every possession does take on more significance and that has been discussed a time or two in practice.''