Ben Jacobson: ‘We Were Just Average Last Year’

In 2010, Northern Iowa engineered one of the most stunning upsets in recent NCAA Tournament history, knocking off No. 1 Kansas, 69-67, in the Round of 32 to advance to the first Sweet 16 in school history.

It was a great moment.

But it will not be the defining moment of the program – not if this year’s team has anything to do with it, anyway. The No. 11 Panthers (24-2, 13-1) have lost just twice this season – both on the road – including once in double overtime at VCU. Northern Iowa has won 13 straight games, nine by double digits.

Not bad for a team that went 16-15 a season ago.

“We were just okay last year,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “We didn’t have a bad year. (We) finished third in our league (and) beat VCU in non-conference play, so (the) guys did some good things last year. But again, just kind of average. We returned a lot of those same guys. We had seven of those guys back. All five of our starters returned.”

They also added reinforcements: true freshman Wyatt Lohaus, redshirt freshman Bennett Koch and transfer Paul Jesperson, who sat out last year but is now eligible. Jesperson and Lohaus are averaging 5.7 and 4.0 points, respectively, while Koch is shooting 57.7 percent from the floor in limited minutes.

“So we added some guys to the group that was back,” Jacobson said. “Then those guys that are back – there’s five seniors and three juniors now on this team, and they just put in a different kind of effort this summer and this fall. And because of that, we’ve changed our defensive stuff and have been pretty good at the defensive end of the floor. That’s made a difference for us.”

Northern Iowa ranks 215th in the country in scoring offense (65.8 points per game) but 13th in field-goal percentage (48.8 percent). The Panthers are also fifth in points allowed (54.9).

It’ll be interesting to see what seed Northern Iowa receives if it wins the MVC Tournament. Fourth? Third?

Jacobson hasn’t thought much about it – and he’s made sure his players haven’t, either.

“That’s not something that I’ve done,” he said. “As an assistant coach here with Greg McDermott, we went to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments in his last three years here. As our head coach, we went in ’09 and we went in 2010. During that time, we’ve really worked hard just to focus on what we always talk about as coaches: see what we can get done today and let’s get better and let’s get ready for that next game.

“But having gone through it, and as you get into this part of the season and in contention for a league title or in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid, it’s really the only way to do it – is to try to help the guys stay tuned into what they’re doing.”

Jacobson did note, however, that Seth Tuttle – who leads the team in scoring (16.3 points per game), rebounds (6.5), assists (3.2), field-goal percentage (62.9) and three-point shooting (48.6 percent) – regularly stops by his office for big-picture discussions.

“He’ll pop in the office once or twice a week, and he wants to talk about basketball,” Jacobson explained. “He wants to talk about other teams. He wants to talk about our team. He wants to talk about how things stack up right now, what’s coming. So he and I will talk individually about some of that stuff, but it’s not something I talk to our team about.”

Northern Iowa plays Loyola-Illinois (Feb. 18), Bradley (Feb. 21) and Evansville (Feb. 25) before closing the regular season at No. 13 Wichita State (23-3, 13-1) on Feb. 28.

Northern Iowa beat Wichita State, 70-54, at home Jan. 31.

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