November 05, 2014

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) It's been nearly five years since college basketball fans around the country learned how to properly pronounce Ali Farokhmanesh's name.

This could the year that Northern Iowa returns to national prominence.

The Panthers look about as strong as when Farokhmanesh, Jordan Eglseder and Jake Koch stunned top-seeded Kansas and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010.

Northern Iowa returns five starters, including first-team All Missouri Valley pick Seth Tuttle, along with key seniors Nate Buss and Deon Mitchell. The Panthers also will add Paul Jesperson, a former starter at Virginia who's expected to bolster a deep backcourt, and touted freshman Wyatt Lohaus.

The Panthers have been picked second in the Valley behind Wichita State. While few think Northern Iowa has a chance to actually push the Shockers out of the league's top spot, the players are in place for Northern Iowa to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth.

''What we do each and every day is the most important thing. It sounds simple, but that's a difficult task,'' ninth-year Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. ''To be able to do the right things each and every day, and not get caught up in how many guys we've got back and who those guys are and where we get picked or don't get picked.''

Here are some of the keys for Northern Iowa, which returns over 90 percent of its scoring and rebounding after finish 16-15 last year.

KING TUTTLE: Tuttle, who averaged 15.4 points and 8 rebounds last season, is one of the nation's most under-the-radar stars. Tuttle turned down Wisconsin, Iowa and Iowa State to play for Jacobson, and he's since started 101 games in his three seasons in Cedar Falls. Tuttle is the Valley's active leader in rebounds with 677 and has 16 career double-doubles, and the Panthers will lean on him in the post. ''What he's after is doing what he can on a daily basis to put our team in position to win a championship,'' Jacobson said.

LOADED BACKCOURT: Northern Iowa has many options at guard this year. Mitchell averaged 12.1 points last season - and he's expected to come off the bench. Junior Wes Washpun should improve on the 8.5 points he averaged after transferring from Tennessee, and junior shooting guard Matt Bohannon made the MVC's All-Improved team last season. Sophomore Jeremy Morgan is an intriguing prospect on the wing, and Jesperson and Lohaus should at least provide quality depth for the Panthers. ''If you look around, we have weapons everywhere,'' Tuttle said.

LONG RANGE: Jesperson made 33 starts for Virginia in 2012-13 and shot 37 percent from 3-point range. The Panthers always find minutes for high-quality shooters, so Jesperson should be have plenty of opportunities for playing time. Jesperson scored 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting and hit a pair of 3s in Northern Iowa's 83-66 exhibition win over Upper Iowa last week.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Lohaus is the son of Brad Lohaus, the former Iowa power forward who played in the NBA for more than a decade. Wyatt is roughly 9 inches shorter than his 6-foot-11 father, but the Panthers think Wyatt has a chance to be a star in the conference. Wyatt led Iowa City West High to three straight state titles and a 95-9 record.

SCHEDULE: A Dec. 13 trip to 15th-ranked VCU highlights Northern Iowa's non-conference schedule. The Panthers also face Iowa on a neutral floor in Des Moines, and a win over the Hawkeyes likely would be huge in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee. Northern Iowa also has gameS against Virginia Tech, Richmond and George Mason, and its home date with the 11th-ranked Shockers will be among the most-anticipated Valley games.

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Follow Luke Meredith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LukeMeredithAP

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