Ben Jacobson

Top-100 recruit commits to Northern Iowa

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Northern Iowa persuaded a top-100 recruit to remain in-state, spurning offers from the Big Ten and Big 12 in the process.

AJ Green, a 6-foot-3 Cedar Rapids native, gave his verbal commitment to Ben Jacobson on Friday afternoon, according to Cole Bair of The Gazette.

“I’m excited to make the decision to be a Panther. I’m also glad that the recruiting process is finished now,” Green told The Gazette. “Looking back on it, it was a pretty cool experience. Knowing a lot of schools want you, it’s kind of humbling knowing all the hard work you’ve put in is starting to pay off.

“It just felt right. Down inside I knew that (UNI) was the place. I’ve been a Panther fan. Been around the program my whole life, so I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s pretty cool. Coach (Jacobson) has told me that he feels like we can go to the Final Four, so hopefully, we can accomplish that.”

Northern Iowa has seen great success during Ben Jacobson’s 11-year career, with seven 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament appearances. With Witchita State now a member of the American Athletic Conference, and with Jacobson locked up through the 2026-27 season after receiving a two-year extension in March, Friday’s commitment could lay the foundation to a strong run for Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference in the coming seasons.

Green is listed as a four-star recruit, rated No. 91 overall in the Class of 2017 by Rivals. He had offers from Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska. He played for the Iowa Barnstormers in the adidas Gauntlet this spring and summer.

Coming back from heartbreak: Northern Iowa’s journey past a tourney collapse

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — It wasn’t until the impossible materialized that Jeremy Morgan really realized what was happening around him.

Morgan and his Northern Iowa teammates were 48 hours removed from witnessing the improbable, but the impossible, the seemingly truly impossible, was now real. A lead that should have been safe from famine, pestilence and plague had been vaporized.

Northern Iowa had collapsed completely. A 12-point advantage on the scoreboard and 44 seconds on the clock should have been enough. It should have been foolproof.

But Texas A&M, in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March, miraculously made up the difference.

“We were just kind of in shock,” Morgan, now a UNI senior, told NBCSports.com this summer, “but at the same time we knew we were going to have to go out and try to win the game in overtime.”

They didn’t, though. Not in the first extra five minutes and not in the second, when the game went to double-overtime. That’s where the Aggies finished off the Panthers, 92-88, and one of the most stunning comebacks in the history of the sport.

“We were in the Sweet 16,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson told NBCSports.com this summer, “and we let up.

“We let the game get away. That’s what made it the hardest one.”

What happened next, though, began to define the moment.

The Panthers’ three seniors – Matt Bohannon, Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson, whose half-courter at the buzzer beat Texas just two days earlier – sat at the post-game podium and fielded questions, many of which they couldn’t possibly have answers for in that moment, with poise and patience.

I hope people understand just how much we came together,” Bohannon said then, “and how much if you believe you can do something special. Man, I’m just going to lean on these guys. I mean, we’ll eventually get over it, but we’re just going to need our time for now.”

Their reactions, from the guys who had the most invested and the most to lose as seniors, seemed to set the tone for UNI.

It was the best medicine,” Jacobson said. “To see those three young guys stand up there and answer the questions … and just be 100 percent open with what they were thinking, what they were doing, what they feel, I just thought it was obviously impressive but it was great for all of us to help us get on with it.”

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20: Alex Caruso #21 of the Texas A&M Aggies celebrates after defeating the Northern Iowa Panthers in double overtime with a score of 88 to 92 during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 20, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Moving on, of course, is what Northern Iowa simply has to do. A little more than a week into the season, it certainly would appear they’re going to do just that, with runner-up finish last weekend at the Puerto Rico Tip-off.

To appreciate a bounce back, though, the context of the depth should be understood.

A number of mathematical models had the Panthers at essentially a 99.99 percent win probability. FiveThirtyEight had it at 1-in-3,000.

“We actually played a really good game,” Morgan said. “We had control of the game the whole time. We had control of the tempo, and then they played perfect basketball the last 45 seconds.

“They played perfect basketball for that 45 seconds, and they came back and got it.”

The ending – full of inexplicable turnovers, a whistle that went against them and huge plays by the Aggies – was the lowpoint. Contrasting it with the high points is what makes the emotional toll on UNI so remarkable.

This was a team that was under .500 on Jan. 27. They won 12 of their next 13, including three in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament – besting Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Wichita State in the semis – to make the NCAA tournament. Then came Jesperson’s spot-on heave against Texas.

This was a team with an air of invincibility.

“These guys thought they were going to beat everybody,” Jacobson said. “(Eventual West Region champ) Oklahoma was terrific but we were at the point with these guys, it didn’t matter. They thought we would beat them or Golden State.

“You name it. They thought we were going to beat everybody.”

In a way, the Panthers weren’t wrong. It took an act of God to beat them.

“We were playing some of the best basketball we’ve ever played,” Morgan said. “Guys were hitting shots, making plays, playing defense. We were playing really good basketball at the end of March there and on into the tournament.”

Then it was as if David’s slingshot backfired.

“At the end of the day, there are certain things that are what they are,” Jacobson said. “We just did one of them. That’s going to be what it is. There’s no reason for me to try to change that narrative or to defend it or to make sense of it because facts are facts. This is what it is.

“So that’s what we’re going to be associated with. So I don’t spend any time thinking about it.”

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 20: Matt Bohannon #5 of the Northern Iowa Panthers sits on the court after a play in the second half against the Texas A&M Aggies during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 20, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This isn’t the first time Northern Iowa has found itself very publicly at a crossroads.

Six years ago, it was a very different one, but a fork in the road nonetheless.

Ali Farokhmanesh delivered on the ultimate heat check to beat top-seeded Kansas to put the Panthers in the Sweet 16 and the national consciousness.

Responding to that level of success, seemingly out of nowhere, can, in its own way, be just as problematic as reacting to failure.

“There was an excitement after the Sweet 16,” Jacobson said, “but I think there was also a little bit of, alright this is great but this could be the only time.”

The Panthers now, though, have a foundation of success to lean against and propel off of. They missed the NCAA tournament for the four years after that Sweet 16, but have now won tourney games in back-to-back years and had one MVC player of the year in Seth Tuttle and could have another this year in Morgan.

UNI has to respond to that catastrophe, but they’re not building from scratch.

“The feeling now is we will do it again,” Jacobson said. “Where after 2010, we weren’t quite there yet. Now, when you see people and talk to people and I see our guys, now everyone is like, ok, yeah, we’re going to do it again.”

The Panthers have the roster to make a return trip to the Big Dance. Morgan may be the best player in the league. Klint Carlson, Bennett Koch, Wyatt Lohaus and Ted Friedman all played against Texas A&M and are back. They’ve added Iowa State transfer Jordan Ashton and have a number of players eligible after redshirt seasons last year.

UNI already has wins over Arizona State and Oklahoma, and played No. 11 Xavier tough in an eight-point loss on Sunday night.

“There’s nothing we can do to go back and change what happened, no matter how much we wish that could be,” Morgan said. “That’s something that’s over and done with. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all or how we wanted it to go but that’s over with now.”

It’s over, but not forgotten. Scars heal, but they don’t disappear. Memories may fade, but that pain remains visceral.

“They’re motivated by knowing we had another game in us,” Jacobson said. “We should have played one more game, and everyone knows it. There’s a lot of motivation in that.”

Seth Tuttle, No. 18 Northern Iowa roll past No. 12 Wichita State

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After winning 20 games or more in five straight seasons Northern Iowa took a step back in 2013-14, as they had significant issues on defense and wound up posting a record of 16-15. Armed with an experienced lineup led by one of the Missouri Valley Conference’s best players in senior forward Seth Tuttle, Ben Jacobson’s team has improved substantially on the defensive end. As a result, Northern Iowa has reached the 20-win mark for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.

Saturday afternoon in a showdown of the Valley’s two best teams, the 18th-ranked Panthers took care of No. 12 Wichita State 70-54, and the final margin isn’t all that indicative of how much separated the two teams in Cedar Falls. The win moves UNI into a tie for first place in the Valley standings, and given their loss at Evansville earlier in the year this was a game the Panthers needed to get.

UNI was efficient on both ends of the court, shooting 60 percent from the field and 17-for-23 from the foul line, with 36 of their 70 points being scored in the paint. Tuttle led the way with 29 points and seven rebounds, putting forth a sensational performance against the Wichita State front court. While guards Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton receive most of the pub nationally, Saturday’s defeat serves as a reminder that the Shockers also need Darius Carter if they’re to play deep into March.

Carter, who entered the game averaging 12.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, played just nine minutes in the first half due to foul trouble (two points, one rebound) and went back to the bench early in the second half after picking up his third foul. The 6-foot-7 senior finished the game with eight points and three rebounds, but Wichita State needed him to be on the floor more than the 17 minutes he would up playing.

Beginning at the 9:38-mark of the first half Northern Iowa went on a 22-6 run, essentially putting the game away with that surge. Wes Washpun added 16 points, three rebounds and three assists off the bench for UNI, whose depth proved to be another issue for Wichita State. Nine of the ten players who saw action for the Panthers played at least 12 minutes, and each of those nine managed to score at least two points as well.

Wichita State doesn’t have that kind of depth, and given how much their main options struggled offensively Gregg Marshall could not find alternatives in order to get things going on that end of the floor. As a team the Shockers shot 35.4% from the field, with Van Vleet (18 points, 3-for-10 FG) scoring ten of his points from the foul line and Baker tallying ten points on 4-for-12 shooting.

Add in the quiet performances from Carter and Cotton (six points, 2-for-5 FG), and it’s easy to see why the Shockers were fighting an uphill battle for most of the game.

Wichita State put forth one of its worst offensive performances of the season Saturday, but the bigger problem for them was their inability to keep Northern Iowa from finding the shots it wanted. Carter’s foul trouble impacted this, and his production will be something to keep an eye on when the two teams meet February 28 in Wichita.

Three-pointer with 5.2 seconds remaining completes second-half rally for No. 20 Northern Iowa (VIDEO)

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With No. 14 Wichita State having won earlier in the day to move to 8-0 in Missouri Valley Conference play, No. 20 Northern Iowa needed a win at Illinois State to remain just a game behind the Shockers in the standings. That proved to be easier said than done, with the Redbirds having Paris Lee in the lineup after a knee issue resulted in his missing Illinois State’s win at Drake earlier in the week.

Lee was one of three Redbirds to reach double figures, scoring 12 points, but what proved to be more of an issue for Northern Iowa was the turnover department. UNI committed 16 turnovers on the day, and with many of them being of the live-ball variety Illinois State scored 18 points off of those mistakes (plus-13 point margin). But thanks in part to a move to a zone defense by head coach Ben Jacobson the Panthers were able to hang around, and their comeback from a 12-point second half deficit was capped by senior Nate Buss.

Buss’ corner three with 5.2 seconds remaining gave UNI a 54-53 lead, with that becoming the final score when Daishon Knight’s runner fell short as time expired. Seth Tuttle was UNI’s lone double-figure scorer, finishing with 21 points along with ten rebounds, but their limiting Illinois State to 34.4% shooting kept them in contention for the win despite the fact that the Redbirds attempted 22 more field goals (61 to 39).

UNI remains a game behind Wichita State in the Valley, with their first meeting of the season scheduled for next Saturday in Cedar Falls.

WATCH LIVE: No. 23 Northern Iowa visits VCU on NBCSN

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With all five starters back from last season’s team, Ben Jacobson’s 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers entered the 2014-15 campaign with expectations of contending for the Missouri Valley Conference title. And the Panthers have looked the part thus far, winning their first nine games of the season with All-MVC forward Seth Tuttle (15.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg) leading the way.

Saturday night the Panthers will look to win their tenth straight as they visit VCU in a game that can be seen at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. Shaka Smart’s Rams will look to use “Havoc” to force the tempo, and in front of a raucous Siegel Center crowd things can get away from a visiting team quickly if they don’t value the basketball.

The VCU tandem of Treveon Graham and Melvin Johnson is averaging a combined 34.3 points per game, and as a team the Rams are scoring nearly 75 points per contest. The key for VCU will be how they defend in the half court, as opponents are currently shooting 47.3% from the field. If UNI can take care of the basketball, they’ll have a shot at matching the best start in school history. Norm Stewart’s 1963-64 UNI team also won its first ten games.

WATCH LIVE ON NBCSN OR ONLINE VIA NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA.

Ben Jacobson becomes Northern Iowa’s all-time wins leader

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While many have already conceded the Missouri Valley race to No. 12 Wichita State, an understandable position to take given the talent that Gregg Marshall returns and how the Shockers ran through the league last season, that mindset isn’t shared by the nine teams that enter the 2014-15 season with hopes of dethroning the reigning champs. The team best equipped to challenge Wichita State may be Northern Iowa, as head coach Ben Jacobson returns all five starters from last year’s team.

Saturday afternoon the Panthers began their season with a game against North Dakota, winning by the final score of 64-52 with Jacobson making history as a result. The win is Jacobson’s 167th at UNI, pushing him past O.M. “Hon” Nordly into first place on the school’s all-time wins list.

All-MVC forward Seth Tuttle led the way for UNI, accounting for 24 points and nine rebounds despite dealing with some foul trouble and committing five turnovers. In total three Panthers scored in double figures, with Wes Washpun adding 15 points and Nate Buss 12 off the bench, and nine players played at least ten minutes.

The combination of a Tuttle-led offensive attack and depth will be the keys for UNI this season, as they look to rebound from a season in which they finished 16-15 overall (10-8 MVC). UNI received 30 points from its bench Saturday, and reserves such as Washpun, Buss, Paul Jesperson and Wyatt Lohaus are all talented enough to contribute consistently.

If they can do that, UNI should emerge as Wichita State’s biggest challenger as the season wears on.