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Northern Iowa: The Missouri Valley’s January Lazarus

The Panthers have rebounded two straight seasons

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-UNI vs Texas A&M
Bennett Koch is following in his brothers’ footsteps
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Iowa has cultivated a reputation for knocking off national powers and for rising from the ashes of disastrous starts to their conference seasons. Last season the Panthers defeated three top 25 teams AND brought their team back from the brink of disaster.

That tradition of winning big games and bouncing back from adversity runs deep in the Panther program. The past two years, UNI has stumbled out of the gate during conference play, only to rebound and become one of the top teams in the Valley.

Last season, the Panthers roared out to a 5-1 start, including a win over top-ranked North Carolina, and then dropped six of their first eight conference games. This year, it was practically a carbon copy. Non-conference wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma signaled another successful season for head coach Ben Jacobson and preseason Valley player of the year Jeremy ‘Captain’ Morgan.

But then the wheels fell off the Panther bandwagon.

UNI lost 11 of its next 13 games, including their first five Valley contests. Valley fans started believing this would be the one negative season in Jacobson’s 11-year tenure in Cedar Falls.

It is always a mistake to count out ‘Jake the Giant Killer’.

The Panthers have won six of their last seven games, including five-in-a-row between Jan. 15th and Jan. 28th.

How did that turn around get started?

Panther traditions carry on in many ways. They hit threes, they play great defense and they have a Koch brother. Bennett Koch is the third member of the Koch family to play at Northern Iowa. Big brother Adam was the Valley Player of the Year in 2009-2010, and shared time at UNI with middle brother Adam that season, when the Panthers upset Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Both of the older Koch brothers finished their UNI careers scoring over 1,100 points.

Prior to the current seven-game stretch, Bennett Koch was averaging 7.4 points and 1.9 rebounds per contest. After what head coach Ben Jacobson said was some extensive work before and during practices, Koch has exploded.

Over the past seven games Koch has averaged 15.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and Jacobson says he’s even added some shot blocking to his repertoire. 12 of Koch’s 17 blocks have come in the last seven games.

Koch’s improvement has lifted some of the scoring burden from Morgan, and has opened scoring options for forward Klint Carlson. Big things were expected out of the 6’9 forward after a stunning finish to last season, but Carlson reached double figures just six times in the first 16 games this season. Now that Koch is a threat on the opposite block, Carlson has topped 10 points in four of the Panthers’ last five games.

Jacobson, ever the defensive minded coach, says the Panther defense has keyed the change.

“Our defense is a lot different than it was at the beginning of conference play,” said Jacobson. “In five of our last seven games, we’ve been able to hold teams to under 40 percent (shooting), and prior to that we went eight games in-a-row where we didn’t hold anybody under that.”

UNI started 2-6 in Valley play last season and finished with a 9-1 kick. This year they started 0-5 and they’ve gone 6-1 heading into Wednesday’s game with Southern Illinois Carbondale.

Defense, a Koch brother and an ability to rise from the dead, make the Panthers a dangerous Valley team.