By Kyle Koso
If you don’t use your blinker before changing lanes, Seth Tuttle is going to lean on his horn.
If you hurriedly abandon your shopping cart in the parking lot, Deon Mitchell will frown and point out that collection zone right next to your car.
And if you try to cut in line at airport security, 6-foot-9 forward Nate Buss will box you out.
Yes, expectations about behavior are at the highest level within the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team, as a group of 10 returning lettermen and all five starters are back for the 2014-15 campaign. The Panthers, one of eight D-1 teams playing in the Cancun Challenge, have designs on muscling their way back to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference after taking a comparative backseat lately to the likes of Wichita State and Creighton.
Last year’s overall record of 16-15 and an upset loss in the MVC postseason tournament unified UNI in terms of a shared vision for this season. Tuttle, a first-team all-MVC selection as a junior last year, is back to handle the dirty work inside, while fellow seniors Mitchell and Buss (all-MVC second-team selections this preseason) bring additional savvy and tenacity to the roster. All that history has forged deep friendships, but like any band of brothers, it’s wise to bring a thick skin to any gathering.
“This group, guys have had to find where they fit in, not just on the court but in a leadership aspect. ‘How much can I demand from my teammates? Are we going to be able to get along after practice?,’” said UNI coach Ben Jacobsen. “It’s been a bit of a process. All I can say is, the balance is the best it has been. They are good about putting friendship aside and going after it at practice, expecting a lot from each other.”
“This is a close-knit group, and off the court we are always hanging out at someone’s apartment or whatever. But when it comes to winning, we go as hard as we can,” said Tuttle, who averaged 15.4 and 8.0 rebounds per game in 2013-14 and was a first-team, all-MVC choice this preseason. “We will hold each other accountable. If I’m out there not going hard enough on defense, someone’s going to come over and tell me to pick it up. And it’s not just the coaches. All of the players know you cannot take a single practice off.”
Urgency is the logical response when you consider where the Panthers have been, and where they want to go. In 2010, UNI beat No. 1-seeded Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and was 30-5 overall. While the program has been sturdy since that high-water mark, conference mates Wichita State (a No. 1 NCAA seed last season) and Creighton (before move to the Big East) have cast a wider shadow.
“These players have taken steps along the way, and there have been bumps. This group came in after two highly successful seasons, and their task was to continue at the same level,” Jacobsen said. “We’ve been in the postseason three of the past four years, but it hasn’t been at the standard this group wanted to accomplish.
“It’s a real positive that in the MVC, we have good basketball. People recognize that nationally, and those are good examples to have in our league. Our guys see that, and it helps from a motivational standpoint, to see that bar up there, up close. But we all know what this program has done before, and we know we are capable of doing it again.”
UNI appeared to have navigated the learning curve at the end of last season, winning five of six at one juncture, two of which were daunting road games. But at the MVC tournament, the Panthers fell behind by 19 points and couldn’t sustain a rally versus Southern Illinois, a team UNI had handled by 19 points nine days earlier.
The abrupt ending stung at the time and ached over the weeks to come. That sudden goodbye to the senior class just didn’t feel right, and in reviewing the season, the Panthers had to make some cold assessments about how they played.
“We didn’t play defense the way Northern Iowa is known for; we didn’t rebound as well as we needed to, either,” said Tuttle, who thinks the squad has a better handle on how to meet its potential . “On the offensive end, Coach sees it as free-flowing. We are going to play loose, but play together. We know to expect the extra pass, and we want to try and get the best shot each time down the floor.”
“Our offensive numbers were very good, but we can be more productive,” Jacobsen said. “We’ve got a year under our belt, a couple of new guys who bring us something. We should be able to do more inside, go to the block more. But we know how we want to play in the open floor.”
And as far as the Cancun event goes, Northern Iowa is eager to face some different competition and get a real gauge on its progress before the meaty MVC schedule begins.
“These trips are great. You get the bonding time with teammates and coaches, but also the fans who are going. It’s good for the program, good for those big donors, to all have some time with us,” Tuttle added. “But I also look forward to the competition. We’ll play Virginia Tech down there, and that’s a team we’d probably never see or ever get to have come to (UNI). “
And if the Panthers are fortunate enough to be the last ones standing in Cancun, they’ll be sure to do the right thing and turn out the lights.