Back to its roots
A recommitment to defense has UNI soaring once again
It was March 20, 2010, and Seth Tuttle just wanted to get home.
Tuttle -- 17 at the time -- knew there was no way he could make it in time. The numbers didn’t add up, trying to sneak the 2.5-hour trek into a roughly 40-minute window. But that wasn't going to stop him from cranking up the speed on the highway as he listened through the radio.
Ninth-seeded Northern Iowa was up 36-28 on No. 1 seed Kansas at halftime of the second round of the NCAA Tournament with its first bid to Sweet Sixteen on the line.
Basketball, as it turns out, was the only reason Tuttle wasn't taking in the potential program-defining upset from his couch. A practice forced him to catch the game's first-half action with friends at a nearby Buffalo Wild Wings. At the sound of the halftime horn, the Panthers and Jayhawks went to their respective locker rooms. Tuttle went to the parking lot.
“I was rocking in the vehicle,” said Tuttle, now a senior center at Northern Iowa.
And so it was in his driver’s seat that Tuttle heard of The Shot. UNI held a one-point lead with 38.2 seconds left and had just broken Kansas’ fullcourt press on a pass to a wide-open Ali Farokhmanesh on the right wing with 30 seconds left on the shot clock. Instead of pulling the ball back out to take more time off the clock, he uncorked a questionable 3-pointer, only to drill it and seal the 69-67 victory.
“I was yelling, I was banging the steering wheel,” Tuttle recalled. “That day I was hitting everything. It was a blast.”
That national spotlight was all Tuttle ever wanted to give back to UNI and the Cedar Falls community, ever since he signed with the school in 2011 after graduating from West Fork High School in Sheffield, Iowa.
“That team, they gave a lot of pride to everyone around here in Cedar Falls and all Panther fans around the nation that we have,” he said. “That’s all I really wanted was to have more years like that and give the community around here, and the coaching staff and our team [the kind of] memories that those guys are gonna have and those guys are gonna share on their own.”
Tuttle doesn’t have to wait any longer. The Panthers are 23-2, were voted 13th in this week’s AP poll and are 16th in RPI as of Thursday. Northern Iowa is tied atop the Missouri Valley Conference with recent powerhouse Wichita State, whom the Panthers manhandled 70-54 at home on Jan. 31.
Head coach Ben Jacobson has his best team since that magical 2010 squad. But 11 months ago, UNI wasn’t competing for an NCAA tournament spot. Heck, they finished eight games behind those dominant Shockers in the conference.
There was no sugar-coating Jacobson’s evaluation of last year’s squad.
“Last year was the worst defensive team I’ve coached,” said Jacobson, in his ninth season at the helm.
UNI finished 16-15 and only 10-8 in the MVC. Opponents racked up an eye-opening 69.3 points per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the floor.
Jacobson called the Panthers’ defensive execution “very average.”
“Last year was the only time in my nine years when we haven’t been completely focused on being a good, hard-nosed defensive unit,” Jacobson said. “I knew my focus needed to be on defending and rebounding, and helping these guys do it in a way that’s gonna allow it to have success.”
So Jacobson laid it out in front of the team at the end of the season: They needed to get back to locking down on defense. The offense played well (72.8 ppg), but they didn’t even sniff the top of the conference, let alone a trip to the Big Dance.
“When you factor those things in, I think guys were able to see, ‘Look, if we’re willing to make some changes, if we can defend and rebound at a high level with the way that we’ve played offense, then maybe we’ll have a chance,’ ” said Jacobson, whose 2009-10 team allowed just 55.1 points per game.
This year, that defense is back. And so is the national exposure. As of Thursday, UNI is fourth in the country in scoring defense (54.8 ppg) and 21st in opponents’ field-goal percentage at 38.2.
And the offense? It’s down considerably to 65.8 points per contest. Tuttle leads the team with 16.0 points per game while no other Panther averages double-digits.
The hardest transition back to a defense-first mentality came in practice. Tuttle and the rest of the Panthers had to move together as a unit, making sure everyone was in their correct spots and they rotated accordingly to take away any gaps in their man-to-man attack.
Fortunately for UNI, all five of its starters returned from a year ago as well as most of its nine- to 10-man rotation, making the adjustments a smoother process.
“For all of us to be able to play as a unit together for a whole year and get a good feel for how each other plays and where we’re gonna be and stuff,” Tuttle said, “this year all we had to do is we just had to lock in on defense more.”
The Panthers have two goals before every game: hold the opposition to under 40 percent shooting and surrender less than a point per possession.
Jacobson wants people entering the McLeod Center to leave raving about the team's toughness and determination on the defensive end. The Panthers have done that, and their coach couldn't be prouder.
“We’ve played well at that end of the floor and the guys have gained so much confidence,” Jacobson said. “They just take a different sense of pride in the defensive end of the floor than we did a year ago. I think that’s the most important thing: They play each possession like they really care what happens at the defensive end.”
UNI’s transformation culminated in its blowout of Wichita State, snapping the Shockers’ 27-game regular-season winning streak in Missouri Valley play (30 if you count last year’s conference tournament). Tuttle scored a career-high 29 points and grabbed seven boards. Jacobson calls Tuttle the team’s “point-center” since most possessions either start or ends with him holding the ball.
Meanwhile, the Panther defense stymied Wichita State to the tune of 17-for-48 shooting (35.4 percent) and 0.9 points per possession, satisfying their fresh, new criteria.
The meeting was the first MVC affair between ranked opponents since 1982 (UNI was No. 18, Wichita State No. 12).
“It was one for our guys to be able to know that we are capable of competing at a very high level, and to do it against a team that everyone knows around the country,” Jacobson said.
It’s not fair to compare the Panthers’ temporary dethroning of the Shockers at the end of January with a heart-pounding upset against one of the most prominent programs in college basketball history. The stakes are obviously different, and the Panthers still have the rest of their conference slate ahead of them, including a rematch with the Shockers on the road on Feb. 28 to close out the regular season.
But both wins were astronomical in their own right. One shocked the world, the other simply validated that defense was its true calling card.
Either way, the Panthers are well on their way toward earning a trip back to the NCAA tournament.
And this time, Tuttle will have a much better view of the action.