The Northern Iowa Panthers ended their 2009-10 season about as well as they could have hoped. They're about to begin the new season with a similar opportunity.
UNI, which famously downed Kansas in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament before losing to Final Four-bound Michigan State, is beginning the 2010-11 season with a chance for another upset. On Nov. 12, the Panthers will face off against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. It will be the school's first non-conference game -- in other words, their first game, period -- of the season. Intense.
Of course, despite UNI's recent postseason success, a win at the Carrier Dome would indeed qualify as a major upset. The 2010-11 Syracuse Orange lost three leaders in the offseason, but they've reloaded with a star-studded recruiting class and a handful of players (Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, Mookie Jones) set to make major leaps in production in the coming year. UNI, meanwhile, lost five seniors from last year's team, including game-winning star Ali Farokhmanesh and leading scorers Jordan Eglseder and Adam Koch.
The difference between Cinderella and the top mid-majors in college hoops -- Xavier, Butler, Gonzaga, et al. -- is that those three expect to be good every year, regardless of personnel losses. They recruit at a high level. They play deep into the NCAA tournament. And when they lose key players, they have enough to reload almost immediately. UNI's 2010-11 season -- starting with their big matchup at the Carrier Dome -- will be a test to see if they can join that level. Whatever happens, it ought to be interesting.