CEDAR FALLS – Northern Iowa unveiled its 2012-13 men’s basketball team Tuesday. It had a different feel than when most organizations reveal their product's latest edition. There wasn't an overhauled design. The faces were similar. And the word “new” wasn't thrown around.
Instead Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson stressed the old basics of the program -- doing the little things. And with 14 players returning from last year’s squad, there wasn’t much to debut but the little things.
“Now we’ve got 14 guys that have an extra year of experience. When you talk about it as a group, having 14 more years of experience on our team than we had a year ago, it’s significant isn’t it,” Jacobson said.
Northern Iowa plans to use that experience to do some significant damage this season. Its four seniors tasted the sweetness of being one of the final 16 teams alive in the NCAA Tournament in 2010. Jake Koch, Marc Sonnen and Anthony James combined to log 34 minutes in UNI’s 67-62 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The trio tallied 37 minutes in the Panthers’ win over Kansas.
After two seasons the sweet taste is beginning to grow bitter, something the Panthers want to reverse.
“It’s good memory but you want a better one,” Koch said. “It seems like it’s been a while since that’s happened. We just want to come out and have a good year.”
It's not that Northern Iowa consisted of a bunch of scrubs last year. It returns 14 players that guided the team to the program's first berth in the NIT. But the NIT isn't the Big Dance.
"Being our senior year, us four, we have great pressure. But that happens every year with the seniors. Every senior class wants to go out with a bang," Koch said. "Unfortunately last year with Johnny (Moran) being the lone senior, we went to the NIT, which is still a good tournament, it's a great tournament, but this year we want more success."
The Panthers will get a chance to see how they stack up against Sweet 16 quality opponents before they reach Missouri Valley Conference play. Some non-conference opponents include Saint Mary’s, Iowa, UNLV, Northern Colorado, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Toledo.
Then there's the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas that consists of perennial powers Duke, Louisville, Missouri, Stanford and Memphis and household names like Tubby Smith’s Minnesota and Shaka Smart’s Virginia Commonwealth. Five of those teams went dancing last year.
The tournament kicks off Nov. 22 with the Panthers playing Louisville.
“I think the only way to be good is to play against the best,” Sonnen said. “So that’s why I’m going to very happy to play against a Louisville, teams like UNLV, Saint Mary’s, team’s that have some of the best players in the country and they’re the best teams in the country.”
Northern Iowa plays at least eight teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons. Depending on how the Panthers do in the Battle 4 Atlantis, that number could be as high as 10.
“When I make decisions (Coach James Berry) is somebody I think about when I make (scheduling) decisions,” Jacobson said. “He took his teams on the road to where ever, Wisconsin, Notre Dame you name it, when they weren’t on a level from a recruiting standpoint that they were going to be competitive. He was doing that so someday we could take a competitive team on the road, or take a competitive team to the Bahamas.”
This year’s squad won’t be satisfied with playing the nation’s best in November and December. They won’t see the glass half full, even if the water came from the Bahamas. Four and five years ago the current senior class came to Cedar Falls looking to leave the program in a state better than when they arrived.
Come to find out, that means two victories in the NCAA Tournament.“I would say there are pretty high expectations for all of us. We just want to leave here having a mark for yourself,” James said. “We’ve been on a Sweet 16 team and the team before that, but as a senior class we want to do that ourselves.”