In a lot of ways, Northern Iowa feels like the Missouri Valley's far outpost, all the way up there at the tip of the conference. There's no sizable metropolitan area or skyline, like the western points of Omaha and Wichita, and Cedar Falls doesn't jump up on you on the highway -- you have to choose to go there, as it's not along any of Iowa's major two-digit interstates. UNI is not a new school (it was born as a teacher's college after the Civil War), and it's not the newest entry in the league (that would be Evansville), but there's still a pioneer aspect to UNI, a newness of fresh possibility.
The Panthers were admitted into the conference in 1991, in an era of turnover and change for the Valley. It had won the Mid-Continent the year before, and shocked Missouri in the Round of 64 on Maurice Newby's 3-pointer in a 14-vs.-3 game.
Northern Iowa spent the Nineties trying to establishing itself as more than a mediocre hanger-on in the Valley. Evansville, which joined three years later, brought a rafter full of Division II national championship banners; UNI had a wrestling reputation, and not much else. After four straight losing seasons in men's basketball, the school hired former player Greg McDermott in 2001. Then, everything changed. It took McDermott just three years to turn the program around. There was a 10-game improvement between 2002-03 and the following season, a 21-10 breakthrough in which UNI clawed through Illinois State, Wichita State and Missouri State for its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. McDermott's team would get in the hard way the next two years, thanks to tough nonconference scheduling, key wins, and undersized teams that played fearless defense. With double-digit seeds, they played to within five points of three well-known basketball powers (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Georgetown).
In February of 2006, I flew into Iowa for the Panthers' BracketBuster classic against Bucknell at the UNI-Dome. I picked up a mnemonic device that would help me with Valley geography: Cedar Rapids is where you fly in and out of, and Cedar Falls is where the shots go down on the basketball court. And they're a long hour's drive away from each other. When I got off the plane late that Friday night, I experienced a level of cold that I had never felt before, and I haven't since either. The temperature was minus-20 Fahrenheit, and that didn't take into account the harsh winds that made the conditions as Arctic as any parallel starting with a 4 could ever experience.
Lucky for me, Ron Smith from the UNI staff was there to pick me up and take me to Cedar Falls. Ron didn't mind the cold at all, it seemed, but while my face thawed out, he told me stories of the Valley. He was a walking encyclopedia who had seen the conference from three perspectives: as a student at Illinois State, a coaching staffer at Southern Illinois, and a longtime assistant at UNI. He told me about Chris Carr's days at SIU during the rise of the Salukis, about the emergence of UNI as a Valley power, all things he had witnessed first-hand. "The Valley always rewards the people who love it," he told me as he dropped me off at the hotel. I've never forgotten that.
It's difficult to understate how suddenly the Panthers' rewards in the Valley came, or what a surprisingly rich legacy the program has created in such a short time. Even though Creighton and Southern Illinois had a head start, since the turn of the century Northern Iowa has just one fewer NCAA appearance (five) than each of those Valley titans do. McDermott jumped the Red Line in 2006, and assistant Ben S. Jacobson took over. The student section changed from "Mac's Maniacs" to "Jake's Jungle." And when Iowa State came to town in November to play in the annual state round-robin, the old regime took the court against the new.
And despite the change at the top and the loss of 30 points of offense in Ben Jacobson (for the final time, no relation), Erik Crawford and John Little, Northern Iowa of the present looks a lot like its past.
"Nobody left after the coaching change," said Jacobson. "All four guys we signed stayed. We were really fortunate in that regard."
The Panthers, as they've always been, are a true reflection of the region's character: close-cropped, no-nonsense hair, square jutting jaws, a team that makes the most of what they have (stoic stick-to-it-iveness) to compensate for what they don't (Superman size, speed and skill). For most of the evening, UNI rolled up what little sleeves a basketball jersey has and simply out-lunchboxed their Big XII guests, as the undersized frontcourt of Grant Stout and Erik Crawford fought underneath for every loose ball and unclaimed rebound. Returning point guard Brooks McKowen showed previously untapped potential as a shooter, going 6-for-12 and hitting 12 free throws on his way to 27 points as the Panthers pulled away for a 70-57 win.
- ESPN.com, 11/29/2006
Despite the early successes and the smooth transitions, the changes at the school were big. The Panthers moved into the McLeod Center, next to the old UNI-Dome. It took Jacobson two .500 seasons to truly built the program in his own calm, cool, collected image. And this new version of the team had size. Jordan Eglseder, a gawky 7-foot-1 project in Jacobson's first year, developed into a paint-chewing monster. Adam Koch, an awkward 6-8 freshman bench warmer in 2006-07, emerged as the team's leading scorer as a junior, developing a nice midrange game along the way.
A long February win streak busted apart the 2009 Valley race. Then, the Panthers edged out Illinois State in an overtime Arch Madness thriller for a return to the Dance, but that yielded an all-too familiar result -- a five-point loss in the NCAA Tournament, this time to Purdue. But with nearly the entire team returning, and Eglseder and Koch and journeyman quard Ali Farokhmanesh (Fah-ROHK-ma-NESH, as everybody now knows) coming back as seniors, expectations were high in the Valley's northern outpost. As was the level of fear from the other nine member colleges.
While most MVC schools pumped up their win totals with guarantee games, UNI scheduled as well as they could without compromise. They played in the Paradise Jam and drew two Big East teams; one of them, woeful DePaul, handed the Panthers a loss that would ultimately cost them an NCAA seed number or two. But with Red Line Upsets against East Carolina, Boston College, Iowa State (again) and Iowa, UNI was ready for Valley season with a 9-1 mark.
They'd only lose three games in conference, all on the road, and breezed through the MVC tourney, winning each of the three contests by an average of 16 points. While the 2008-09 version squeaked by teams, this club destroyed its opponents. It recalled Drake's storm to the double-title in 2008, and it had a similar look of destiny.
But unlike those Bulldogs, Northern Iowa survived its close NCAA first round game, on a 3-pointer by Farokhmanesh. It was UNI's first NCAA win in 20 years, and damned if it didn't look incredibly and eerily familiar.
And then, against top-seeded Kansas, this happened. You can safely say that he was serious with that shot.
And now Northern Iowa continues on, back to the very center of the Valley itself, the home of league headquarters and city home of its recent Arch Madness wins... St. Louis, Missouri. Michigan State awaits in the regional semifinals. But this week is a time to reflect on the Panthers' path to this moment. It took them 10 years to earn the Valley's respect, another 10 years to become one of the conference's true powers, and two beautiful shots to enter the hearts and minds of the nation at large. How far, how quickly... how sweet.