DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) An NCAA Tournament loss just a game shy of the Sweet 16 shouldn't obscure what Northern Iowa accomplished this season.
The Panthers showed they can compete with any program in the country when everything falls into place.
During the season, the Panthers rolled past Iowa and reeled off 16 straight wins - including a thrashing of Wichita State - to put the program back in the national spotlight.
Northern Iowa (31-4) set a school record for wins, moved into the top 10 for the first time and won the Missouri Valley conference tournament before losing to Louisville on Sunday night.
''They raised the bar again. I love them for that. We have had a lot of good things happen at Northern Iowa in our men's basketball program, and these guys raised the bar one more time. That's hard to do with some of the things we have done, but they did it. And it took a lot of sacrifice, and I'm really, really proud of them for that,'' coach Ben Jacobson said.
It won't be easy for the Panthers to replicate their success next season. That's mostly because years like this one don't come around too often at any school.
Northern Iowa was expected to push Wichita State in the Valley. But few expected the Panthers to play as great as they did from November to March.
The first inkling that 2014-15 could be a special season came way back on Nov. 18, when Northern Iowa won at eventual Southland Conference champion Stephen F. Austin, which later fell to Utah as a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Panthers then rolled past rival Iowa on a neutral floor in Des Moines, which helped set them up for an historic run through the Valley.
Northern Iowa lost its first league game and its last. But in between, the Panthers reeled off 16 straight victories, including a rout of the Shockers in Cedar Falls.
Losing in the regular-season finale at Wichita gave the Shockers the league title. But Northern Iowa made up for it with three wins in a row in St. Louis at the league tournament.
The Panthers then beat Wyoming in Seattle, but fell one win short of matching their 2010 team and reaching the regional semifinals.
''Everybody that's been around our program and all the young guys and families we're recruiting right now, they just saw the best entire season,'' Jacobson said. ''We didn't get to the Sweet 16, so that's the only thing we didn't match. But they just saw the best four months of basketball our program has ever had, and that's saying a lot.''
This promises to be a crucial offseason for Jacobson and the Panthers.They've got a lot to replace by November.
Northern Iowa does have a nice core returning, led by guards Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon, Jeremy Morgan, Paul Jesperson and Wyatt Lohaus. But developing some big men to fill in for Tuttle and Singleton will be crucial to UNI's hopes for another strong season in the Valley.
Still, the 2014-15 season will be remembered as the one that showed just how high the ceiling can be for the Panthers.
''You know that for the years to come, every time you walk into the gym in Cedar Falls at Northern Iowa you're going to see guys working, whether it's a red shirt or a senior, they're going to be in the gym getting their shots up, they're going to be in the weight room working as hard as they possibly can,'' Buss said. ''I think that's a standard that's going to be continued for years to come.''
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