The Panthers still expect to be good this season, even without All-American Seth Tuttle and three other key seniors.
The Panthers may not have enough to challenge Wichita State and others for the league title. But the return of senior guards Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson, and rising junior swing man Jeremy Morgan, should help Northern Iowa finish in the top half of the Valley for the 13th year in a row.
''Our team chemistry is really good again,'' coach Ben Jacobson said. ''The thing I talked with our guys about is ... let's see how much fun we can have with the team we've got.''
Here are some of the story lines to follow for the Panthers in 2015-16:
WES' TEAM: With Tuttle gone after averaging 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds a game last season, Jacobson will turn to Washpun for leadership. Though Washpun was a bench player a year ago, he averaged 7.6 points in 22 minutes per game. Washpun gives the Panthers what they've lacked in years past: a point guard quick enough to push the pace and excel in transition. Getting the excitable Washpun to play within himself and get his teammates involved could be the key.
GUARDED OPTIMISM: Washpun will have help. Bohannon shot 41 percent from 3-point range last season and has been in Jacobson's system long enough to know what the coach wants in crucial moments. There's been talk that Jesperson might play some power forward to compensate for Northern Iowa's lack of frontcourt depth, but the Virginia transfer can score from almost anywhere. Morgan, now in his third season, is primed for a breakout season for a team that will need help on offense.
CENTER OF ATTENTION: By far the biggest question mark for Northern Iowa is at center. The Panthers have hardly any experienced big men, and they'll look to sophomore Bennett Koch to fill that void. Koch, the brother of former Northern Iowa star Jake Koch, had eight points and seven rebounds in a 70-50 exhibition win over Truman State.
DOWN WITH LOHAUS: Sophomore guard Wyatt Lohaus, the son of former NBA player Brad Lohaus, is exactly the kind of kid that Jacobson has developed into an All-Valley honoree as an upperclassman. Jacobson wouldn't mind Lohaus becoming such a player this season, though. Lohaus shot 47 percent on 3-pointers as a reserve last season - but his quickness and awareness stood out just as much as his shooting.
SCHEDULING: The Panthers haven't scheduled like a team hoping for an NIT berth. Northern Iowa hosts Colorado State and Stephen F. Austin before the biggest home game in school history: No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 21. Tar Heels star Marcus Paige will be returning to his home state - though he likely won't play after breaking his hand Tuesday in practice. The Panthers also play at New Mexico and Richmond before facing No. 7 Iowa State.
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