Iowa's Got a Secret

January 25, 2010

Methodical on offense and suffocating on the other end, Northern Iowa quietly has developed into a program that should be taken seriously come tournament time

Things to do in Cedar Falls, Iowa? Grab a bite at J's Homestyle Cooking. (The $6.75 dinner special is recommended.) Hang out at the main watering hole in town, Beck's on College Street. Or catch a flick at the College Square Theatre, which is where Northern Iowa basketball starters Ali Farokhmanesh and Adam Koch spend a typical Friday night when they're not on the road. "We like to think of ourselves as Siskel and Ebert," says Koch, who as the Panthers' lanky, 6'8" power forward would be the Siskel to the 6-foot Farokhmanesh's Ebert. The roommates, who by their count have screened more than 30 movies over the past three months, keep a tally of every flick they've seen, on an oversized posterboard taped to a basement wall in their off-campus house. "We score every movie on the chart and even color code them based on their ratings," says Farokhmanesh, who liked Avatar (he gave it a 9.4 out of 10) but was let down by the denouement in The Book of Eli (an 8.25). "Hey, it's Iowa," adds the senior guard. "You have to find ways to amuse yourself."

This winter the film geeks and the rest of the Northern Iowa basketball team are doing their part to bring some Hollywood-worthy drama to the snow-covered plains of the Cedar Valley. Last Saturday night, before a packed house of 6,778 at the McLeod Center, the Panthers steamrolled Indiana State 62--40 to improve to 16--1 and stretch their winning streak to a school-record 15 games. Not only have the Panthers whipped the competition in the Missouri Valley Conference (at week's end they were 7--0 in league play), they've also beaten teams from the ACC (Boston College), Big Ten (Iowa) and Big 12 (Iowa State).

And yet Northern Iowa—which finally cracked the Top 25 this week, debuting at No. 20—remains the best-kept secret in college basketball, under the radar even in its own basketball-crazed state: Until last Saturday night the Panthers had drawn a home crowd of more than 5,000 only twice (against Siena and the in-state rival Hawkeyes). Granted, the purple Panthers aren't a flashy bunch; they win games with a clock-chewing, screen-happy offense and a lockdown defense that turns many games into brickfests for the opposition. "Northern does a great job of keeping the game very slow," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said after his Redbirds scored 44 points and shot 38% in a 15-point loss to the Panthers on Jan. 9. "They do a great job of basically putting everyone to sleep."

Time for the country to wake up: The Panthers are one of the best mid-majors in the nation, a program that looks capable of rocking the NCAA tournament as George Mason did four years ago. "They're well-coached, they're well-balanced, they're experienced," says former UNI and current Iowa State coach Greg McDermott, whose Cyclones lost to the Panthers 63--60 in Ames on Dec. 2. "I think people are quickly realizing that this is a team that's no fun to face."

The Panthers aren't a lot of fun for the visiting announcers, either. The starting lineup includes Farokhmanesh, an Iowa City native who two years ago transferred from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids; Kwadzo Ahelegbe, a point guard from Minneapolis; and Jordan Eglseder, a 7-foot center from Bellevue, Iowa, a hamlet 105 miles east of Cedar Falls. The core of the team is a tight-knit quartet of seniors who provide a balanced scoring attack—at week's end Eglseder, Farokhmanesh, Koch and Ahelegbe were averaging between 13.1 and 9.2 points a game. Says Ahelegbe, "We just have that bone in our body where everyone's unselfish."

The confident and loose team ("They always play as if they're ahead," says McDermott) takes its personality from soft-spoken coach Ben Jacobson, a former UNI assistant who inherited the program in 2006 after McDermott left. "Coach Jake is never uptight," says Ahelegbe. "I can't even remember the last time he yelled at us—or if he ever has."

Last week, during the second half of a tight game at home against Bradley, the trigger-happy Farokhmanesh missed badly on an ill-advised 24-footer that would have made most coaches turn purple. "We come into the huddle, and I know he has to say something after a shot like that," says Farokhmanesh. "He just looks at me and says, 'You might want to step in there, that's a little outside your range. That's more my range.'"

The Panthers have turned into a Missouri Valley juggernaut thanks to a stifling defense—one "predicated on guarding the dribble," according to Jacobson—and an offense that keeps opponents off-balance with a dizzying assortment of plays. A typical team runs 15 to 20 plays during the season; the Panthers have more than 100. Jacobson tries to script the opening five to 10 minutes of a game. "Like a football team would do," he says. "The other team takes away the dive [play], then you make your adjustment."

For the Panthers, keeping track of all the plays can be daunting, even for a starting five that includes three seniors. "Coach was a valedictorian in his high school," says Farokhmanesh, "so maybe he just assumes we can just memorize all of them."

The valedictorian—he graduated first in his class of 36 in Mayville, N.D. ("My dad was the principal, so that certainly helped," Jacobson says jokingly)—is a numbers-savvy coach attuned to the efficiency statistics that are changing the way college basketball analysts look at team performance. The numbers explain why the Panthers are so improved from last season, when they went 23--11 and 14--4 in the Missouri Valley and earned their first invitation to the NCAA tournament in three years. Last season Northern Iowa ranked 122nd in the country in defensive efficiency (.987), a measure of points allowed per possession. At week's end this year's team ranked 21st in the nation (.886), a figure that has been trending downward all season. "The numbers back it up: We're getting stronger and stronger by the week," says Jacobson.

No Panther has made a bigger leap than Eglseder, the gentle giant whose teammates howl like Chewbacca when he enters a room and who is endearingly called Sasquatch. The team leader in rebounding (8.5 per game) as well as the second-leading scorer (12.6 points), Eglseder has stayed healthy for the first time in his four years as a Panther, because of a new commitment to conditioning. (He was slowed by back and foot injuries in each of his first three seasons.) After a game earlier this year an assistant from an opposing team told Jacobson he was blown away by how much Eglseder has improved. "He reminds me of [former Central Michigan center and current Los Angeles Clippers center] Chris Kaman, how much better he got his last year and a half," Jacobson recalls the assistant saying. "Kaman runs a little bit better, but he's not as big as Jordan is."

Eglseder has come a long way since the day he pledged to the Panthers eight years ago. When he arrived at the Big Man Camp for high schoolers on the Northern Iowa campus in the summer of 2002, Eglseder was a 6'7" sophomore-to-be, an admittedly clumsy teen who had seen all of 30 seconds of action in his freshman season at Marquette High in Bellevue. "He was very raw," says Jacobson of the then 14-year-old who caught the eye of the UNI staff. "There was his size, of course, but he had soft hands and a nice shooting touch."

A few days after the camp Eglseder got a call: To his shock, UNI—a struggling program that had little to lose by taking risks on projects such as Eglseder—was offering him a scholarship. "I was like, Let me think about this," he recalls. "No other schools have shown any interest in me. I'm fat. I'm slow. And, let's be honest, I'm not very good. O.K, sign me up!"

Last summer Eglseder attended the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in Hawaii, where, according to Jacobson, the coaches and scouts "reinforced that he needed to get in better shape if he wants to play at the next level. They told him they really liked his ability to score, but he had to get in better shape. And I think it hit home."

When Eglseder returned to Cedar Falls, he started showing up for daily workouts with Koch at 6 a.m. He revamped his diet—"He used to eat everything," says Koch, "but now he'll spend 45 minutes cooking fish and vegetables and healthy food we want no part of"—and has since dropped nearly 30 pounds to his current weight of 272. "He's so much stronger than he was, but it's also easy to forget he's just 21," says Jacobson. "In 2½, three years, when that body finally catches up, watch out. I think he's going to be terrific."

Northern Iowa's appearance in last year's NCAA tournament was short-lived: a 12 seed, the Panthers were bounced by Purdue 61--56. The players describe their experience of walking into the Rose Garden in Portland to face the Boilermakers as if they were the Hickory High boys in Hoosiers, stepping wide-eyed into the cavernous site of the state finals for the first time. "Big arena, packed house, we were a little overwhelmed in that first half, just happy to be there," says Koch. The Panthers fell behind by 12 at halftime and never recovered.

Barring a collapse, Northern Iowa will be headed back to the NCAA tournament again this spring. "We've had some great moments in the history of the program," says Jacobson. "Norm Stewart coached some great teams in the 1960s in Division II. Jim Berry took the team from Division II to Division I. In 1990 the team upset Missouri in the first round [of the NCAA tournament]. There have been [isolated] moments. We want to build a program that's there year in and year out. And if we can win a few games in the NCAA tournament, maybe this program can reach that next level."

How much longer will the Panthers keep streaking? All the way to March, they hope. "If we're fortunate enough to be in the tournament again, trust me, we won't be happy just to be there," says Ahelegbe. "We'll be ready."

Now on SI.com

See where Northern Iowa sits in Luke Winn's Power Rankings at SI.com/cbb

"We just have that bone in our body where everyone's unselfish," Ahelegbe says of the Panthers.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by GREG NELSONDOUBLE PLAY Eglseder (53) and Ahelegbe (11) are two of the key players for the play-happy, defensive-minded Jacobson (right). FOUR PHOTOSPhotographs by GREG NELSONGOOD NEWS The success of Koch (34), Ahelegbe (11) and Lucas O'Rear (32) is starting to get the attention of UNI's students. PHOTOMATTHEW PUTNEY/WATERLOO COURIER (EGLSEDER)WHO KNEW? Surprised when the Panthers offered, Eglseder has worked hard to become a dominant center.

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