No Panther has made a bigger leap than Eglseder, the gentle giant whose teammates howl like Chewbacca when he enters a room and who is endearingly called Sasquatch. The team leader in rebounding (8.5 per game) as well as the second-leading scorer (12.6 points), Eglseder has stayed healthy for the first time in his four years as a Panther, because of a new commitment to conditioning. (He was slowed by back and foot injuries in each of his first three seasons.) After a game earlier this year an assistant from an opposing team told Jacobson he was blown away by how much Eglseder has improved. "He reminds me of [former Central Michigan center and current Los Angeles Clippers center] Chris Kaman, how much better he got his last year and a half," Jacobson recalls the assistant saying. "Kaman runs a little bit better, but he's not as big as Jordan is."
Eglseder has come a long way since the day he pledged to the Panthers eight years ago. When he arrived at the Big Man Camp for high schoolers on the Northern Iowa campus in the summer of 2002, Eglseder was a 6'7" sophomore-to-be, an admittedly clumsy teen who had seen all of 30 seconds of action in his freshman season at Marquette High in Bellevue. "He was very raw," says Jacobson of the then 14-year-old who caught the eye of the UNI staff. "There was his size, of course, but he had soft hands and a nice shooting touch."
A few days after the camp Eglseder got a call: To his shock, UNI—a struggling program that had little to lose by taking risks on projects such as Eglseder—was offering him a scholarship. "I was like, Let me think about this," he recalls. "No other schools have shown any interest in me. I'm fat. I'm slow. And, let's be honest, I'm not very good. O.K, sign me up!"
Last summer Eglseder attended the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in Hawaii, where, according to Jacobson, the coaches and scouts "reinforced that he needed to get in better shape if he wants to play at the next level. They told him they really liked his ability to score, but he had to get in better shape. And I think it hit home."
When Eglseder returned to Cedar Falls, he started showing up for daily workouts with Koch at 6 a.m. He revamped his diet—"He used to eat everything," says Koch, "but now he'll spend 45 minutes cooking fish and vegetables and healthy food we want no part of"—and has since dropped nearly 30 pounds to his current weight of 272. "He's so much stronger than he was, but it's also easy to forget he's just 21," says Jacobson. "In 2½, three years, when that body finally catches up, watch out. I think he's going to be terrific."
Northern Iowa's appearance in last year's NCAA tournament was short-lived: a 12 seed, the Panthers were bounced by Purdue 61--56. The players describe their experience of walking into the Rose Garden in Portland to face the Boilermakers as if they were the Hickory High boys in Hoosiers, stepping wide-eyed into the cavernous site of the state finals for the first time. "Big arena, packed house, we were a little overwhelmed in that first half, just happy to be there," says Koch. The Panthers fell behind by 12 at halftime and never recovered.
Barring a collapse, Northern Iowa will be headed back to the NCAA tournament again this spring. "We've had some great moments in the history of the program," says Jacobson. "Norm Stewart coached some great teams in the 1960s in Division II. Jim Berry took the team from Division II to Division I. In 1990 the team upset Missouri in the first round [of the NCAA tournament]. There have been [isolated] moments. We want to build a program that's there year in and year out. And if we can win a few games in the NCAA tournament, maybe this program can reach that next level."
How much longer will the Panthers keep streaking? All the way to March, they hope. "If we're fortunate enough to be in the tournament again, trust me, we won't be happy just to be there," says Ahelegbe. "We'll be ready."
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