As the season approaches, Mid-Major Madness will be taking a closer look at its preseason Power 15 teams.
Northern Iowa lived up to expectations last season, adding its veteran firepower to the strength of Wichita State atop the Missouri Valley Conference to make a two-headed monster that was the talk of the country heading into March. Mostly this came because the Panthers were able to do what other teams had failed to do for more than a year: beat the Shockers.
The Panthers ran their record to 27-2 before a regular season loss to Wichita State cost them the MVC conference title. They missed their chance at a rematch in the MVC tournament when Illinois State upset the Shockers. The Redbirds almost did the same to UNI, playing for 30 minutes like they were going to be bid stealers in the NCAA Tournament. Northern Iowa prevailed though and earned itself a No. 5 seed, and an NCAA Tournament win, before a loss to Louisville in the Round of 32.
With the loss also came the end of the career of Seth Tuttle, the obvious choice for the MVC Player of the Year, and an all-around threat that generated a ridiculous amount of value for the Panthers. While he was the focus of the offense, Northern Iowa used a team approach to most of its games. But point guard Deon Mitchell is gone, along with big man Nate Buss. The three contributed huge numbers on the offensive, and defensive ends that will be missed.
The cupboard isn't bare despite the losses. Many of the contributors last season were still juniors and have a chance to step up this year. And despite losing the two biggest contributors inside, don't expect the offense to change much. This was still a shooting and slashing team, although they will have to find someone who can be as scary coming up the lane as Tuttle. They will still rely on the 3-point shot to move the offense, and they have one of the best in the country in Paul Jesperson to lead the way behind the arc.
On the defensive side, a lot will fall on the shoulders of Jeremy Morgan and Wes Washpun to keep up what was one of the best defenses in the country last season (28th KenPom). Morgan had 40 steals and 19 blocks, while Washpun added 34 steals and 17 blocks, despite being just 6-1. At least one of the returning players will need to step into the big shoes left by Tuttle and Mitchell to stop some of the high-powered offenses that Northern Iowa will see this year.
The Panthers didn't slack off in the scheduling department despite its personnel losses. North Carolina will be the biggest test early in the season, and a real challenge in terms of how this team will stand up against a tough perimeter defense. They also have a rematch of one of the best early season games from last year when Stephen F. Austin comes to town. The Lumberjacks haven't lost much from last season and Thomas Walkup will be a challenge to contain without Tuttle.
Northern Iowa will also see Richmond, Iowa State, and take a trip to Hawaii where they have a chance to face off against either Oklahoma or Washington State, and possibly BYU in the finals if all goes well.
We will learn a lot about this Northern Iowa team long before the conference season begins with so many challenges in their path, and perhaps find out if the No. 14 slot is a little too generous for a team that lost more than 50 percent of their production, and nearly 65 percent of their rebounding (a massive strength on the defensive end in 2014-15) from last season.
Ben Jacobson has his work cut out for him as not every team in the Missouri Valley can reload like Wichita State seems to do each season. Losing Tuttle is going to be very hard on the Panthers as he seemed to come up big in every game that the Panthers needed him last season. It wouldn't be surprising to see Northern Iowa struggle out of the gate until they learn to play and win without their three senior leaders from last year. The Panthers will probably fall out of the Power 15 early, but could make appearances throughout the year, even if they are probably just a middle-of-the-pack team in the Valley this season.
Don't count the Panthers out in the MVC Tournament, but don't expect a fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament by the Panthers with Jacobson at the helm.