Monday March 9th, 2015

Seth Tuttle pounded the steering wheel and screamed.

If he had driven past someone acting like that, he would have thought something was wrong. He might have gone so far as to assume that he was on the highway next to a clinically insane person. But Tuttle was simply celebrating .

On March 20, 2010, No. 9 seed Northern Iowa stunned top seed Kansas, 69-67 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Tuttle, then a junior at West Fork High in Sheffield, Iowa, and a Panther recruit, listened to the game in his car on the way back from practice with his AAU team, the Iowa Barnstormers. He and his teammates had stopped at a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the first half but, when bad weather threatened to strand them, headed home.

[daily_cut.college basketball]On the drive back, Tuttle stared out his windshield in disbelief as the Panthers knocked out the Jayhawks, considered college basketball royalty. Two months later, before his final tour on the AAU summer circuit, the life-long Iowa State fan committed to Northern Iowa. “I definitely jumped on the UNI bandwagon,” he says now.

Fast forward five years, and Tuttle is driving the bandwagon. The Panthers haven’t been back to the NCAA tournament since that magical run in 2010. (Northern Iowa lost to Michigan State 59-52 in the Sweet 16 that season.) The Missouri Valley Conference has spent plenty of time in the spotlight the last five years, headlined by Wichita State, which went to the Final Four in 2013 and opened 2014 35-0. Until this season, Northern Iowa had become a footnote in the MVC, plagued by defensive problems. Last season, under coach Ben Jacobson, the Panthers were 187th in defensive efficiency, and finished 16-15, falling in the first round of the conference tournament.

Tuttle, a 6’8”, 240-pound forward known for his basketball IQ—he occasionally calls plays, and uses timeouts to tell Jacobson what he thinks would work based on his vantage point—has changed Northern Iowa’s fortunes this season. On Sunday, UNI locked up a tournament bid by winning the Missouri Valley conference. Tuttle, the MVC’s player of the year, scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the win over Illinois State. It was a fitting end to the pre-NCAA tournament season, in which Tuttle averaged 15.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

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But Tuttle won’t rest on those results. A coaching hopeful, he analyzes every game, regardless of outcome, on his WatchESPN app soon as he returns home.

“He’s unique in that way,” Jacobson says. “He got here after we had gone on a Sweet 16 run and for Seth, that’s all he’s ever wanted, to get back to that. We haven’t done it yet so this season, he’s really leaving no stone unturned, as the saying goes, trying to get him better and us better.”

It’s easy to watch Tuttle and wonder how a player of his skill wound up at a mid-major. Tuttle played at a small high school, with fewer than 250 students, but made sure to test his skills and get seen on the AAU circuit. Jacobson liked him instantly as a potential Panther, and knew he’d found a perfect fit when he took his two young sons to watch Tuttle, a former quarterback, play football at West Fork.

“That’s when you could really appreciate a guy of his size and the feel he had for what’s going on around him,” Jacobson says. “He has great command of the situation and respect of his teammates. Quarterback, starting pitcher, point guard, however people best relate to it, he’s at that level (in terms of IQ).”

As he weighed different recruiting offers and interest, Tuttle sat down with his parents, Jim and Vicki, and drew up pro and con lists for each school. Even after a few unofficial visits to Iowa State’s campus, Tuttle found the “pro” list for Northern Iowa longer than any other. (He officially did not receive an offer from Iowa State, but did from Colorado State and Northern Colorado.) He liked the small, 12,000-student population and that it was only 60 miles from his hometown, which has fewer than 1,200 residents. The McLeod Center, where UNI plays its home games, holds 6,650 so it’s conceivable that Tuttle’s entire hometown could fit into the stands. (He said it felt that way on Feb. 25, the Panthers’ senior night, when he greeted hundreds of well-wishers postgame, many of whom he had known his whole life.) He was eager to end his recruiting, and committed to UNI in the spring of his junior year.

“The recruiting process is much more stressful than the normal person realizes,” Tuttle says. “It’s not that cool.”

He arrived at UNI measuring 6’8” and just 210 pounds, weighing less than classmate and starting guard Deon Mitchell. “In my defense, our point guard was really fat that year,” Tuttle says, adding that the Panthers still tease Mitchell about it. Had he grown up somewhere else, maybe his body composition would have reflected it: Sheffield is so small it doesn’t even have a McDonald’s, Tuttle says incredulously. Visiting a fast food chain took a special road trip to a neighboring town.

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Thirty pounds later—aided by food other than Big Macs—Tuttle is one of the best players in program history. He’s started every game (133) of his career, and entered the season ranked in the top 10 for a multitude of Panther records, including career field goal percentage and blocked shots. He was the 2012 MVC freshman of the year, a midmajor freshman All-American and an all-conference selection last season. But none of those personal accomplishments would have meant much to him without this year’s NCAA tournament trip. He holds himself to high standards, he says. Almost as high as his cousin, Carli Teisinger.

Teisinger is a 5’4” freshman point guard at Dunkerton High, about 20 minutes away from UNI’s campus. For the last five years, Tuttle has spent the summer working to refine Teisinger’s game. This comes after five years coaching his younger brother, Tanner, with their father. (Tanner is now a freshman at UNI, but not playing anymore.) Tutelage from Tuttle has become so popular, seven or eight of Teisinger’s friends regularly show up at Dunkerton, hopeful for feedback from one of college basketball’s best players.

“Coaching is absolutely making me a better player,” Tuttle says. “The more you say something to someone else, the easier it is for you to remember.”

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Teisinger attends every Northern Iowa game that she can, when they don’t interfere with her own. Already claiming the title of President of the Seth Tuttle Fan Club, she is the quickest to praise and criticize her older cousin. She cheers until she’s hoarse, and chastises him for dropping his follow through early or backing off the free line before his shooting motion is complete. Frustrated by the loss to Wichita State last Saturday, she stomped downstairs to the basement, explaining later that she couldn’t watch anymore because “I just hate when their shots aren’t falling. It’s terrible!”

What stresses her now is getting a spot to watch her cousin play in the NCAA tournament. She’s worried about the cost of traveling long distances but convinced she has to be there. And she plans to save the proof that she was in the building.

Tucked into her phone case, Teisinger still has the worn ticket stub from March 11, 2011, when Tuttle scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a 60-56 overtime win, leading West Fork to the 2A Iowa State title.

His junior year, when they lost in the playoffs, Teisinger remembers “bawling and crying” uncontrollably. One year later, when West Fork finished a perfect 27-0, “I was so excited I couldn’t even breathe.” She was also so nervous she could barely watch.

She kept a souvenir from that game, and she plans to save one from March Madness, too. She’s hopeful she’ll have a few stubs by the end of the month. If she does, it means the Panthers have gone another run. And this time, instead of losing his mind in his car, her cousin will be a part of it.

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