March 16, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) Northern Iowa has always been an underdog in the NCAA Tournament.

Not this year.

Everyone seems to know about the Panthers (30-3), who earned a school-best No. 5 seed and a date with Wyoming in Seattle on Friday. Some have even pegged Northern Iowa as a potential Final Four candidate out of the East Region because of its ability to shoot and play defense. It also has Seth Tuttle, one of the nation's top big men.

Rather than shy away from both the spotlight and heightened expectations, coach Ben Jacobson is thrilled with all of it. Jacobson knows it's the end result of years of hard work by everyone in the program.

''From my standpoint, I've enjoyed that part of it with this team,'' Jacobson said. `I've been really impressed with how they've handled all the things that have come their way this year. They've had to work hard to earn it.''

If there's a knock on the Panthers heading into the tournament, it's that they haven't played the kind of brutal conference schedule that might prepare them for a potential run.

Jacobson said he thinks the Missouri Valley Conference was good enough to get the Panthers ready for March. The Valley got multiple bids for the third time in four seasons, and Northern Iowa's resurgence was huge for a league that lost cornerstone school Creighton two years ago and struggled beyond Wichita State last season.

''Our league was older. A more experienced league and much more like it has been most of the time. Last year, we were a little bit younger and little bit of change,'' Jacobson said. ''The last two and a half months have prepared us for what's coming.''

Northern Iowa also has had more rest than most of the field because the Missouri Valley tournament ended on March 8.

The Panthers know something else is coming: constant questions about Ali Farokhmanesh, whose gutsy 3 that sank top-seeded Kansas in 2010 and put Northern Iowa on the map has become one of the signature moments of the NCAA Tournament.

Jacobson admitted Monday that he and his players grew a bit tired of seeing and hearing about that shot as they spent four years watching the tournament on TV in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

But now that the Panthers have recorded 30 wins and the Valley tournament title, they've come to peace with the moment that still defines the program.

''Prior to the star of this season, for the last three or four years, that's what we've heard about,'' Jacobson said. ''It got to the point where (it was) enough. Let's move on and let's do our own thing...but after the year we're having, I think the guys has shown themselves that we've got a really, really good basketball team. We've accomplished a lot of things. So I think it's more fun to see that shot now.''

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

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