Northern Iowa will need to improve defensively if they’re to challenge Wichita State

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The Missouri Valley Conference heading into the 2014-15 season will have one significant question to answer: which team is best equipped to challenge a Wichita State team that ran the table within the conference and won 35 straight games before falling to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament? On paper, Northern Iowa has a strong argument that it will be the team most capable of doing that, with Ben Jacobson welcoming back all five starters from last season.

However it must be noted that the Panthers struggled to establish consistency (especially defensively) in 2013-14, finishing the season with a 16-15 record and finishing third (10-8) in the Missouri Valley. Given the contributors returning and the addition of players such as Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson and freshman Wyatt Lohaus, UNI has begun working towards ensuring that they won’t encounter such issues in 2014-15.

In a story written by Carson Tigges of the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, the relationship between Jesperson and MVC All-Newcomer team selection Wes Washpun (8.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.8 apg) helped the former adjust to a new program last season.

“Me and Wes formed a great relationship as soon as I got here,” Jesperson added. “We had played against each other in AAU, so we were familiar. It was nice to talk to him about different things, what the system was like, what practices were like and different things.”

Fortunately, they had each other and Washpun hopes he laid down the right blueprint to help the new Panther.

“Last year was a lot of ‘keep your head up, keep working, keep working on your game, don’t let it fall off because your time is coming,'” Washpun said.

All five starters, led by All-MVC forward Seth Tuttle (15.4, 8.0), return to campus with there also being capable reserves like Nate Buss and Deon Mitchell to call upon as well. Wichita State will be the favorites to win the Valley and it’s a label the Shockers have undoubtedly earned. But in 2014-15 the competition may be better equipped to push the Shockers as they look to repeat.

Can Northern Iowa lead that group? On paper the Panthers have that look to them, but they’ll need to make strides collectively on the defensive end in order to do so. Last season UNI ranked seventh in the Valley in defensive efficiency, sixth in field goal percentage defense (44.2%) and last in three-point percentage defense (36.1%).

Given the pieces Northern Iowa returns, offense shouldn’t be a major concern in 2014-15. But if they’re to take a step forward, the Panthers’ progress on the defensive end will be the deciding factor.