December 09, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (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.

Northern Iowa (8-0) is off to its best start in 50 years after knocking off George Mason 71-65 in overtime on Saturday. The Panthers are the last undefeated team left in the Missouri Valley Conference, and on Monday they entered the Top 25 for the first time since 2010, checking in at No. 23.

Northern Iowa is surging behind its defense, which is tied for 16th-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 per game while shooting 65 percent from the field.

But the emergence of senior power forward Marvin Singleton is perhaps the biggest reason why the Panthers' 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 down low with Tuttle.

Singleton, who never averaged more than 12 minutes or 2.5 rebounds per game, now leads the Panthers with 7.3 rebounds a game - and his 26.8 minutes per game ranks behind only Tuttle.

''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 so far, averaging 67.8 points. But the Panthers have been efficient, shooting 46.1 percent from the field, and seven players are averaging at least five points a game.

Still, Jacobson is looking for a bit more synchronicity. Starting guard Deon Mitchell has struggled mightily from the floor, shooting just 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 non-conference play starts Wednesday when they play at Denver. Northern Iowa then plays at VCU on Saturday and faces rival Iowa on a neutral floor in Des Moines.

Denver utilizes concepts from the Princeton offense, which is predicated upon teamwork, constant motion and tricky backdoor cuts. The Rams are famous for their pressure defense - which can overwhelm opponents in a hurry in the Siegel Center - and the Hawkeyes like 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.''

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

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