There is no team in college basketball that had a more bizarre season than the Northern Iowa Panthers. They were thirteenth in our final Mid-Major Power 15 poll. Coach Ben Jacobson's team reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
UNI entered the season with a veteran team, that lacked starting experience. The Panthers could use any of a number of weapons to win, but had only eight players participate with any regularity.
They were a constant contradiction of terms, They defeated three nationally ranked teams, including early season wins over No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Iowa State. With confidence riding high, the Panthers launched into Missouri Valley play and promptly dropped six of their first eight conference games.
Just when we were convinced "Jake and the Giant Killers" had run out of magic, they reeled off 12 victories in 13 games, including a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament victory and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
An opening round victory over Texas and an early lead against Texas A&M and we knew the Panthers were headed for another Sweet 16 appearance. Then UNI's famous collapse in the final 44 seconds and the Panthers' season was over.
A contradiction of terms.
For all of their ups and downs, the Panthers could always count on Wes Washpun, 3-point shooting and solid defense. Washpun may have been the best ‘big game player' in this college basketball season.
Washpun scored 21 points and handed out eight assists against the Tar Heels. During UNI's neutral site win over Iowa State, the 6-1 senior was even better, scoring 28 points, grabbing seven rebounds and distributing 11 dimes.
All Washpun did at the MVC Tournament was score 20 points to help eliminate Wichita State in the semifinals and score 18 in the final, including the 18-foot buzzer beating, game winning jumper against Evansville.
Washpun finished the season averaging over 14 points and five assists per game.
But this was a team that lived with only eight players playing any significant time. When they were pushed to overtime in the NCAA Tournament by A&M, Washpun fouled out and teammate Matt Bohannon badly sprained his ankle. Jacobson had no where to turn.
Three UNI players were in the Valley's top ten in minutes played, with Bohannon and Washpun both ranked in the top five.
The Panthers led the Valley in made 3-pointers, free throw percentage and were second in scoring defense, but they were the MVC's second worst rebounding team. In their season-ending loss, the Panthers were out rebounded 50 to 39.
They were a balanced scoring team. Four players averaged double figures in scoring as Bohannon (the leading 3-point shooter in the Valley), junior Jeremy Morgan and Paul Jesperson (the half-court heaving hero of the Texas game) all turned that trick.
Sharing time in the post in the Panthers' four guard offense, were sophomore Bennett Koch and freshman Klint Carlson. They combined to average 15 points and seven rebounds per game. Carlson's finish to the season was eye-opening. He averaged 12 points over the final six games, all by himself.
Morgan, who scored 36 points in the final game loss, was UNI's best defender and rebounder and has shown a ‘big game' potential of his own.
UNI finished with a record of 23 and 13, they won the MVC Tournament and an NCAA Tournament game. If not for a mid-season slump and a final game crash, they would have had a season for the ages.