N Iowa tries to make new history; L'ville tries to stop it
SEATTLE (AP) The players who put Northern Iowa hoops on the map are all gone, replaced by others who are trying to leave their own successful stamp on the program.
The new group is reminded, almost daily, about the magic of 2010, when the Panthers knocked off Kansas to make it to their first Sweet 16. Northern Iowa hasn't been that far since, and the players who are there now have to remind themselves, almost daily, that they can't get caught up in trying to repeat the past.
''That's a very important team in our school's history, and what they did for our program is off the charts,'' said senior Seth Tuttle, the kid from Sheffield, Iowa, who listened to the end of that Kansas game on his car radio, and knew right then that Northern Iowa was the place for him.
''But we're in a different situation now,'' Tuttle said.
Led by Tuttle, the quarterback-turned-post man, the Panthers are a No. 5 seed in the East Region but still favored by 2 1/2 points in Sunday's game against fourth-seeded Louisville, a program that knows a little bit about consistent success. The Cardinals have been to the regional semifinals 20 times; they are going for a record fourth straight appearance.
Some might call this the ultimate litmus test for the Panthers, who became something of an afterthought in the Missouri Valley Conference when Creighton, with Doug McDermott, and Wichita State, with the trip to the Final Four, got ahead of them for a few years.
The Panthers are back on top of that conference now. They won their program-record 31st game Friday. But those aren't really the goals at UNI anymore.
''We compare ourselves to the best,'' Tuttle said. ''That's the only way we feel like we can go about getting better. So, when we talk about being the best defensive team, we're not just talking about in the Valley, we're talking about in the nation. When we want to have one of the most efficient offenses, we compare it to the best in the nation.''
If there was ever a good time to have Louisville standing in the way, this might be the time. Even coach Rick Pitino concedes this is not his best team. The Cardinals (25-8) have spent most of the season struggling to figure out who they are - a struggle that only got murkier when they dismissed their best guard, Chris Jones, from the team last month. Louisville won 30-plus games the last three seasons. Only a national championship can help the Cards reach the 30-win mark again this year.
''It wouldn't surprise me if we made a Final Four run. It wouldn't surprise me if we got knocked out early,'' Pitino said. ''We're good enough to win, but we're not an overpowering team like we have been the past three years.''
Panthers starting guard Matt Bohannon injured the index finger on his shooting hand in Friday's game and is questionable. Panthers coach Ben Jacobson said Bohannon went through the team's walkthrough Saturday. If Bohannon, who averages 5.7 points, can't go, Jacobson said Paul Jesperson would start in his place.
LOVE HIM, HATE HIM
An ongoing debate for the last four years in Louisville has centered around whether forward Wayne Blackshear has played up to his potential. The latest: Yes. He scored 19 points in the win over UC Irvine, providing points that Montrezl Harrell couldn't while he was being guarded by 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Blackshear, who averages 11 points and four rebounds, says he pays no attention to the critics. Pitino does. ''It's very easy to criticize. It takes no talent at all to criticize,'' the coach said. ''But the coaching staff, every coach that's coached Wayne Blackshear, thinks he's the greatest kid in the world, thinks he's one of the hardest workers.''
Pitino said there's no worry that his team might take the Panthers likely because they're a ''directional'' school - ''Northern Iowa.'' He said the Panthers are as good as any team the Cardinals have played this year, outside of Kentucky. His thoughts on UNI: ''You may not be a household name 20 years ago, but you are today.''
LET'S D UP
It may not be the prettiest two hours of basketball. Neither of these teams likes to run much, or do anything quickly on offense. The over-under for the game is 116 1/2 - the lowest number on the board for Sunday's eight games. Many pundits have been critical of that sort of play, which has spread wide and far across the sport this season. Pitino sees it differently: ''The worst basketball to possibly watch is high school all-star games and AAU basketball games where scouts aren't there and NBA all-star games. It's terrible to watch, because no defense is being played.''