Wes Washpun

AP Photo/Charlie Niebergall

Issues on both ends result in No. 1 North Carolina’s first loss

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Come Monday we’ll have a new team atop the national polls, all because the shorthanded occupant of the top spot could not maintain a 16-point second half lead.

No. 1 North Carolina scheduled their game at Northern Iowa as a homecoming of sorts for senior point guard Marcus Paige, who is currently sidelined with a broken bone on his right hand. But what would have been a tricky matchup even with Paige on the floor turned into a nightmare of sorts as the second half wore on, with the Panthers outscoring UNC 31-11 over the final 17:40 to win by the final score of 71-67.

UNI certainly deserves credit for their play both offensively and defensively in making the comeback, but they had some help in the form of a visiting team that lost focus. After doing a good job of finding quality looks on offense, including scoring on their first four possessions of the second half, the Tar Heels hit s dry spell. The ball didn’t move as crisply as it did earlier in the game and the player movement wasn’t as sound either.

So even with Justin Jackson scoring 25 points in his best performance of the season to date, these issues were bound to catch up with North Carolina playing against a team as sound defensively as UNI. The three perimeter players who played so well in their first three victories, Joel Berry II, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson, all struggled Saturday afternoon. The trio accounted for 11 points (4-for-16 FG), nine assists and eight turnovers on the day.

That’s something North Carolina can make up for when Paige is in the lineup. But in this period where their best ball-handler and scorer is on the bench, the play of the guards who normally would be in supplementary roles becomes even more important.

The bigger concern coming out of the second half was North Carolina’s play defensively. The Tar Heels had no answer for guards Matt Bohannon and Wes Washpun, who combined to score 26 of their 40 in the game’s final 20 minutes. Some of the responsibility for that can be placed on the guards, but there were also poor defensive rotations on ball screens that led to Washpun (five second-half assists) getting opportunities to either score himself or find open teammates (Bohannon hit three three-pointers).

Of UNI’s final 31 points Washpun had a hand in 25 of them, scoring ten and assisting on 15. That speaks to both the senior’s impact on the game and North Carolina’s inability to slow him down.

Ultimately it’s only November 21, so Roy Williams and his team have plenty of time to work out the kinks on both ends of the floor. It was known that the loss of an All-American has a noticeable impact on how a team performs, so UNC going through an adjustment period is of no surprise. But if the team needed a reminder that their margin for error shrinks significantly without Marcus Paige on the court, they received it in his home state.

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.

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.

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.