(AP) - Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson always knew he had the pieces in place for a strong season.
The unbeaten Panthers have played up to their potential so far.
The Panthers are the last undefeated team in the Missouri Valley Conference, and on Monday they entered the Top 25 for the first time since 2010, checking in at No. 23.
They've started 9-0 twice, in 1922-23 and '63-'64.
Northern Iowa is surging behind its defense, which is among the best in the country at 55.3 points allowed per game.
"Our defense is much improved over the course of the last six or eight weeks," Jacobson said. "I like what the guys have done at the defensive end."
He's also quite happy with the way center Seth Tuttle has started his senior season. Tuttle is averaging 16.4 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 64.7 percent.
But the emergence of senior power forward Marvin Singleton is perhaps the biggest reason why the frontcourt has gotten so much better.
Northern Iowa initially had Singleton at small forward, mostly because he's generously listed at 6-foot-6. The coaching staff shifted him to power forward toward the end of last season and found success starting him on the blocks with Tuttle.
Singleton, who never averaged more than 12 minutes or 2.5 rebounds, now leads the Panthers with 7.3 rebounds a game - and his 26.8 minutes per game ranks behind only Tuttle's 29.1.
"The biggest change with him is his conditioning," Jacobson said. "He completely changed his body, and that's helped him be much more effective for us."
Northern Iowa has played middle-of-the-pack offense, averaging 67.8 points. But the Panthers have been efficient, shooting 46.1 percent, and seven players are averaging at least 5.0 points.
Still, Jacobson is looking for a bit more synchronicity. Starting guard Deon Mitchell has struggled mightily from the floor, shooting 21.3 percent.
"Offensively, we've been OK," Jacobson said. "'We're not clicking on all cylinders, if you will, at this point with our offense. Hopefully that will kick into gear for us."
The sooner the better for the Panthers, who are about to face three completely different types of opponents.
Their toughest stretch in nonconference play starts against Denver (4-3). Northern Iowa then plays at VCU on Saturday and faces rival Iowa on a neutral floor in Des Moines on Dec. 20.
Denver utilizes concepts from the Princeton offense, which is predicated upon teamwork, constant motion and tricky backdoor cuts. VCU is famous for its pressure defense - which can overwhelm opponents in a hurry in the Siegel Center - and Iowa likes to push the tempo as much as possible.
"It's good for your players to play against different systems, and play against zone defense, play against a team that's going to press like VCU does," Jacobson said. "There's no question it's good for your team as you're building and working to get yourself ready for conference play."
The Pioneers shot 55.6 percent - 40.0 from 3-point range - while limiting the Islanders to 34.9 percent.
"We played really well today," coach Joe Scott said. "What we did defensively as a team, the way we rebounded and the way we shot the ball led us to the road victory today."
The Panthers won the first two meetings in this series before Denver won 63-57 at Northern Iowa on Feb. 23, 2013.