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Ben Jacobson had to deal with some stiff competition during the first week of preseason practice, and not just from his teammates. Jacobson and his roommate, reserve guard John Little, were among dozens of students searching for a new place to live after a fire damaged their apartment complex in October. "Most places had already been rented, so it was kind of a rat race with so many people suddenly looking," he says. But the pair needed only a few days to find new digs, which isn't surprising because Jacobson, a 6'3" senior guard, is something of a celebrity in Cedar Falls, where he has led the revival of the Northern Iowa program.
This season he's the biggest reason that the Panthers are expected to have a new residence of their own at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference standings. With all five starters returning from a 21-11 team, Northern Iowa seems ready and able to supplant Southern Illinois, which has either won or shared the last four league championships.
The Panthers still have the players who accounted for more than 90% of the team's points and 80% of its rebounds last season. Key among them is Jacobson, a long-range marksman who led the team with a 17.9 scoring average and made 45.2% of his three-pointers. Northern Iowa appears to be a lock to make its third straight NCAA tournament appearance, a remarkable turnaround for a team that didn't finish higher than fourth in its conference during the 10 years before coach Greg McDermott arrived in 2001.
The Panthers compensate for a lack of size with a three-guard lineup, including senior Erik Crawford (39.0% from three-point range a year ago), that is dangerous from the perimeter. That makes them a tough out in the tournament, where Northern Iowa nearly pulled off first-round upsets in each of the last two years, losing by five points to eventual finalist Georgia Tech in 2004 and by the same margin to Wisconsin last season.
"When I came, the perception was that the program was down in the dumps," Jacobson says. "I'm proud that I've been a part of turning things around." The Panthers have come so far that next year the school will open a 7,000-seat, multisport arena. Jacobson won't be around to help his team get settled, but in a way, he's already helped them make the move.
HOWARD PULLEY PANTHERS
Since 1999 Northern Iowa has mined this Minneapolis-based AAU team for seven players, including current starters Eric Coleman and Erik Crawford and a high school guard who has committed for next season.