Team preview: Northern Iowa

Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2011-12 season, exclusively on Insider

Updated: October 12, 2011, 11:02 AM ET
Blue Ribbon Yearbook

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

College basketball teams get to take one out-of-country trip every four years. Northern Iowa's turn came up this summer, and it seemed like the perfect time to take it.

With six true freshmen joining a roster that includes three sophomores and two redshirt freshmen, Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson figured the Panthers could use some team-building.

"That's why we decided to go this year," Jacobson said. "After the practices and going on the trip, I'm really glad we decided to go. We're going to count on some of those freshmen and sophomores. Those guys are now a long way ahead of where they would be on the first day of practice."

Jacobson picked a trendy vacation spot for the Panthers, taking them to Brazil in August. The basketball part went well as Northern Iowa rolled to a 5-0 record, beating its opponents by an average of 24.2 points per game.

"We played against one of their professional teams and that game was highly competitive," Jacobson said. "The players on the Brazilian team were mostly 24, 25, all the way up to 32, 33, 34 years old. They were experienced. That game was great for us."

But it's off the court where Jacobson hopes his team gained the most.

"That's probably the most important thing that comes out of a trip like this," Jacobson said. "We had a chance to go visit one of their schools and put on a little clinic for a couple of their classes. It was really an eye-opening experience for our players.

"For the guys to spend quality time together doing things other than basketball is really good from a program standpoint and building the kind of team chemistry and trust you want to have with all of your teams."

PLAYERS

Not all of the Panthers are young. Jacobson welcomes back three-year starting guard Johnny Moran (9.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg). The 6-1 sharpshooter is the lone senior on the team. He led the Panthers with 65 three-pointers and shot .367 from behind the arc last season.

"He's won a ton of games and adds a tremendous amount of leadership," Jacobson said. "He's just added another level of toughness to our program."

Moran, who is coming off of shoulder surgery, didn't play in the Brazil games. But he did make the trip and was able to bond with the younger players.

The senior leader did what all of the younger guys are hoping to do: start from day one. That's why it seems like Moran has been at Northern Iowa for eight years.

"He's impacted our team heavily each of the three years he's already been here," Jacobson said.

Jacobson expects overall improvement for Moran.

"Johnny's always been a pretty good all-around player," Jacobson said. "He handles the basketball. He passes the basketball. He shoots the ball well. He really guards and he makes all of the toughness plays. The thing we've seen with him is he continues to get a little bit better in each of those areas. He's very good at a lot of things."

The Panthers are missing an All-Missouri Valley pick from a year ago. Guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe averaged 14.1 points in his senior season.

Jacobson will look to 6-0 junior guard Anthony James (12.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg) for some of missing stats. James earned a spot on the Valley All-Improved team after bumping his scoring average into double figures.

"Probably a little more than what we anticipated," Jacobson said. "He didn't need a lot of shots to do it. He was extremely productive. He's a guy who can really put the ball in the basket. He shoots from well beyond the three-point line [.413, 43-of-104] and is able to drive it. He can score it in different ways."

Jacobson wants to see James improve his ball handling and defense.

"He has the ability to be a great defender," Jacobson said. "He showed that at times last year."

The third returning starter is 6-9 junior forward Jake Koch (9.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg). He led the team last season with 30 blocked shots.

Koch underwent ankle surgery in the spring, which limited his workouts during the summer. He played reduced minutes in Brazil, but was healthy by late August.

"He's gotten stronger," Jacobson said. "His mindset is better than it was a year ago. He didn't know what to expect. As a freshman, he came off the bench and played great. We had a bunch of juniors and seniors who did the heavy lifting. Last year, he knew he was going to move into that role. That's a different role to be in. When you're the guy who is called on to do everything at a higher level and do it consistently, that's different. I think he's ready mentally and physically to have a better year."

A year ago, Koch was among the team leaders in several statistical categories, including free-throw shooting (first, .831).

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"He's got a lot of versatility at the offensive end of the floor," Jacobson said.

Guard Marc Sonnen (4.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg), a 6-3 junior guard, will probably move into a starting role.

"He has the potential to do what James did last year, where people knew he was a part of our team and he did some decent things, then all of a sudden he's a double-figure scorer and he has a huge impact on what we're doing," Jacobson said. "I think this is the year that's going to happen for Marc. He's a terrific defender. He's tough as nails. He's ready to take that step. I've got a lot of confidence he's going to have a big year."

Austin Pehl (2.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg), a 6-10 junior center, started 10 games last season. His playing time should increase.

"He played well on the trip," Jacobson said. "The game is starting to slow down for him a little bit."

Sophomore Chip Rank (3.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg), a 6-6 forward, is also in the mix for increased playing time.

"He maybe had the best summer of everybody," Jacobson said. "He's shooting the ball at a high rate. He's got a completely different mindset and confidence than he had a year ago. He's providing leadership. He's talking. And he can really, really shoot the basketball.

"He loves the weight room and he loves banging guys around."

A pair of redshirt freshmen, 6-5 guard Max Martino and 6-9 forward Nate Buss, have a chance to contribute.

The six newcomers include three guards: 6-4 Matt Bohannon, 6-2 Jevon Lyle and 6-1 Deon Mitchell.

"Bohannon is a guy who can really shoot the basketball," Jacobson said. "Jevon Lyle has a chance to be a very good defender for us. Deon Mitchell is going to impact our team this year. We needed another guy in our backcourt who can create offense for us and is good in transition. He can really play in the open floor. He does a very good job of finding his teammates and making it easier for them."

Jacobson has two new inside players: 6-8 Seth Tuttle and 6-8 Chris Olivier.

"We've got to find more scoring inside, and both of those guys can score down on the block," Jacobson said. "We've got to be a better rebounding team this year, and both Chris and Seth have got some length. They're going to get a long look to see where they fit in the mix."

The sixth newcomer is 6-6 forward Marvin Singleton.

"He's got a lot of versatility," Jacobson said. "He does a lot of the little things that don't show up on the stat sheet."

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B
BENCH/DEPTH: C+
FRONTCOURT: C+
INTANGIBLES: B

No surprise, last season, the Panthers' win total dropped 10 from the magic team of 2009-10. You don't win 30 games often, at any level.

But the Panthers continued their Valley-best streak of three 20-win seasons. And they won at least 18 games for the eighth consecutive year. Before 2003-04, Northern Iowa won 18 games just six times in its history.

Winning 18 again, and even 20, is within the Panthers' power. Hit either number and they will get to a fourth consecutive postseason.

But can they rise above 20 wins and into the top two or three in the Missouri Valley? A lot will depend on the development of the newcomers. If they are able to pitch in and offset some of the statistical losses from Ahelegbe, Northern Iowa can challenge for the conference title. But if they are slow to figure out college basketball, it might turn into a two-year project.

Jacobson is the right coach for this bunch, and he's got help on the floor with Moran. They won't fall short for lack of effort or intelligence.

The nonconference schedule will prepare the Panthers for the Valley. They open at perennial NCAA Tournament contender Old Dominion. Trips include a game at Iowa State and matchups with Rice and Providence at South Padre Island. Iowa, Colorado State and Milwaukee are among the teams visiting Cedar Falls.

"We're working every year to put together a schedule that will have us in the conversation for an at-large bid," Jacobson said. "You've got to win some of those games, and you've got to put together a good conference season."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.