It was never going to be easy to continue the success of last season, not without Seth Tuttle in the middle of the floor, or Nate Buss, or Deon Mitchell, or Marvin Singleton.
You can't underestimate how much of a change this season was going to be for the Panthers, who, while they were able to use much of the same backcourt as a year ago, had to find a way to replace all of their inside threats.
So it should be no surprise that while the scoring was there for the Panthers in the opener against Colorado State, the defense that was so good a year ago was just off. The failed stops by Northern Iowa ultimately doomed them as they attempted to come back again and again, as they fell to the Rams, 84-78.
There were some good things that come from the loss, namely Aarias Austin who scored nine points in his debut for the Panthers, although he committed four fouls and turned it over twice in limited minutes. Wes Washpun and Matt Bohannon continued where they left off last season, and were the main drivers of the offense, totaling 36 points between them.
Plus Jeremy Morgan took on his expanded role as the swing man, scoring 20 points and grabbing six rebounds and two steals in the win. His emergence as a big possession player should help to ease the loss of so much scoring in the interior.
But there is a lot of room to improve. Offensive rebounding, which was never a strong suit for Northern Iowa even last season, continued to plague the Panthers, who grabbed just seven of 34 chances. It wasn't that Colorado State was that much better on the offensive glass, but the Rams seemed to find the ball when it mattered most down the stretch, and extend the possessions that they needed to in order to hold onto the lead late in the second half.
The Panthers also failed to force turnovers as they did a year ago. Mitchell and Tuttle were obviously a big part of that ability to force teams into mistakes. Yet Washpun and Morgan were also key factors last season. Maybe it is the transition to playing without that strong interior presence of Tuttle, who could range out and help on defense.
That wasn't possible today with Bennett Koch in foul trouble from less than two minutes into the game, and forced a smaller lineup on the court for the majority of the contest. The most effective the team was at causing mistakes was when they went into a full court press in the final moments, and had their zone defense cooking, something that is much out of character for the Panthers.
It will continue to be an adjustment for Northern Iowa, and they have some time to figure out how to do so before Stephen F. Austin rolls into town Tuesday morning. Until today, Ben Jacobson had yet to lose a November home game in nine seasons at the helm. Without the right moves, he might be in jeopardy of losing two in a row.