(AP) - Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson needed only a few games to realize he had a problem on his hands.
Too many players weren't getting their usual minutes. It hadn't resulted in a loss, but Jacobson knew he needed to address it.
"I said, 'Look, guys. You're either going to be OK with this - 15 to 25 (minutes) for eight or nine guys - and make this work and we can get really good. Or it's going to hold us back," Jacobson said.
Too much depth turned out to be a good problem for Northern Iowa. By embracing it, the No. 14 Panthers have emerged as one of the nation's most surprising teams.
After earning the school's highest ranking in the AP Top 25, they'll put their deep rotation on display against Drake on Saturday looking for an 11th straight win and to remain unbeaten at home this season.
Three of Northern Iowa's top six scorers have yet to start a game. High-profile transfer guards Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson, dependable senior Nate Buss and rising freshman Wyatt Lohaus are providing quality bench minutes for the Panthers (21-2, 10-1 Missouri Valley Conference).
"It's just a big thing about sacrificing for the team," Jesperson said. "It's just buying into the fact that we're something bigger than ourselves."
The outstanding play of the bench has been keyed by Washpun, a former starter who initially balked at a reserve role. It's since turned out to be the best thing for both Washpun and the Panthers. He is second on the team at 9.1 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting - and he's actually still playing more than starting point guard Deon Mitchell.
Washpun's ability to attack the basket and excel in transition is a crucial aspect for a team known for a deliberate offense. He's also toned down his once-notorious intensity.
"Last year it hurt us. Now, 95 percent of the time he's got us going in the right direction, and that has an impact on his teammates," Jacobson said. "When you've got a fire and you're willing to show it, that impacts your team.
"When you bring a guy off the bench like that? It's huge."
Jesperson, a junior who started 33 games at Virginia two years ago, said he initially found it tough shifting to the bench, but he's been markedly efficient while playing just 19 minutes a game. Jesperson is shooting 41.2 percent from 3-point range and 85.7 percent at the free throw line, and his eight turnovers are the fewest of the entire rotation.
The 6-foot-9 senior Buss has epitomized the homegrown role players who've been invaluable to Northern Iowa over the last dozen years.
Buss, who grew up in nearby Charles City, gives the Panthers a defensive presence in the paint while stretching out defenses with his ability to hit 3-pointers. He's hit 23 3s on just 53 attempts, good for third-best on the team.
Lohaus, the son of longtime NBA player Brad Lohaus, has been blocked at times by the talented upperclassmen in his way, but he hit two late 3s to help Northern Iowa win at Stephen F. Austin and is considered one of the team's brighter young talents.
"The thing that coach has shown this season is that he's going to the guys that are hot," Jesperson said. "The team is so deep, that any five that's out on the court on the night they're playing well gives us a great shot."
Drake (7-16, 4-7) is trudging through another sub-par season, but the Bulldogs have won three straight Valley matchups for the first time under second-year coach Ray Giacoletti after a 63-61 win over Southern Illinois on Wednesday.
Chris Caird hit a 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds left to lift Drake, which has gone 28 for 56 from beyond the arc during its win streak.
The Bulldogs, however, are 0-3 against ranked teams this season, including a pair of losses to Wichita State, and have dropped 10 of their last 12 overall and five straight on the road against the Panthers.