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‘Is this heaven?’ No, It’s Northern Iowa

by Matthew Stevens | February 2nd, 2009

Not one person.

Not a single head coach, sports information director, or media member voted Northern Iowa the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference.

And who could blame them?

UNI had never won the regular season title in school history, and lost its top two scorers, top rebounder and best three-pointer shooter from last year’s team that went 18-14.

Then the 2008-2009 season began and the Panthers gave no indication they had intentions of making every one of those voters regret his or her vote – or in this case lack thereof.

Consider these key non-conference results for the Panthers:

LOSS – Nov. 19 – at Illinois-Chicago 77-84

LOSS – Nov. 28 – vs. No. 8 Marquette (at Hoffman Estates, IL) 43-73

LOSS – Dec. 3 – vs. Iowa State 66-71 OT

LOSS – Dec. 9 – at Iowa 46-65

LOSS – Dec. 13 – at Wyoming 65-74

By Christmas it was just assumed that the Panthers would need a miracle to not make it three straight seasons without an NCAA dance card.

“I saw them early in the year and I wouldn’t have believed they’re 9-1 in conference now,” ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb said during the ESPNU college basketball podcast this week.

After nine straight UNI victories (their longest run since 1963-64) including road wins over Southern Illinois, Creighton, Drake, Missouri State and people are trying to figure out if this small public institution 75 miles west from the famous field of dreams can prove once again that Iowa is the place dreams come true.

“We’re just a completely different basketball team than we were in early December,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobsen said. “Guys have just done a really good job at practice because when we start seeing everybody a second time it’s going to get harder.”

Since 1992, every team leading or sharing the conference lead at the mid-point has gone to some form of postseason play.

The Panthers defense has keyed the turnaround by containing their last four opponents’ leading scorer under 10 points.

“The guys have a much better trust of one another,” Jacobson said. “The team defense and the trust the guys have amongst each other has really changed over the past five or six weeks, and it’s a made a huge difference.”

On the offensive end, Northern Iowa’s five starters (Adam Koch, Jordan Egleseder, Ali Farokhmanesh, Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Johnny Moran) are all averaging between 9.6 and 11.9 points per game.

“I don’t know if they’re as good as Drake was last year but so much of this game is confidence and they have tons of confidence,” Gottlieb said.

When the confidence rises, usually the shooting percentages follow which has happened with the UNI crew during this run. In the last 11 games, the Panthers (15-6, 9-1) have shot over 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc.

“You just kind of watch their scores, and their scores have been unbelievably impressive,” Illinois State head coach Tim Jankovich said BEFORE his team lost 59-55 Wednesday night. “And then once you start watching them (on tape) you start to realize why.”

Ahelegbe, who missed last season with a severe shoulder injury, scored nine of Northern Iowa’s final 10 points in the latest victory over Illinois State. The 6-foot-2 point guard has increased his points, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free throw percentage.

“They just didn’t start real fast out of the gate, or whatever, so they weren’t on the radar,” Jankovich said. “But I would think any minute, any day now, our league is strong enough that people are always going to look at who is out in front.”

As least in late January, the Redbirds head coach was a believer and rest assured he’s not the only one anymore.

Better late than never.

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