Things to do in Cedar Falls, Iowa? Grab a bite at J's Homestyle Cooking. (The $6.75 dinner special is recommended.) Hang out at the main watering hole in town, Beck's on College Street. Or catch a flick at the College Square Theatre, which is where Northern Iowa basketball starters Ali Farokhmanesh and Adam Koch spend a typical Friday night when they're not on the road. "We like to think of ourselves as Siskel and Ebert," says Koch, who as the Panthers' lanky, 6'8" power forward would be the Siskel to the 6-foot Farokhmanesh's Ebert. The roommates, who by their count have screened more than 30 movies over the past three months, keep a tally of every flick they've seen, on an oversized posterboard taped to a basement wall in their off-campus house. "We score every movie on the chart and even color code them based on their ratings," says Farokhmanesh, who liked Avatar (he gave it a 9.4 out of 10) but was let down by the denouement in The Book of Eli (an 8.25). "Hey, it's Iowa," adds the senior guard. "You have to find ways to amuse yourself."
This winter the film geeks and the rest of the Northern Iowa basketball team are doing their part to bring some Hollywood-worthy drama to the snow-covered plains of the Cedar Valley. Last Saturday night, before a packed house of 6,778 at the McLeod Center, the Panthers steamrolled Indiana State 62--40 to improve to 16--1 and stretch their winning streak to a school-record 15 games. Not only have the Panthers whipped the competition in the Missouri Valley Conference (at week's end they were 7--0 in league play), they've also beaten teams from the ACC (Boston College), Big Ten (Iowa) and Big 12 (Iowa State).
And yet Northern Iowa—which finally cracked the Top 25 this week, debuting at No. 20—remains the best-kept secret in college basketball, under the radar even in its own basketball-crazed state: Until last Saturday night the Panthers had drawn a home crowd of more than 5,000 only twice (against Siena and the in-state rival Hawkeyes). Granted, the purple Panthers aren't a flashy bunch; they win games with a clock-chewing, screen-happy offense and a lockdown defense that turns many games into brickfests for the opposition. "Northern does a great job of keeping the game very slow," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said after his Redbirds scored 44 points and shot 38% in a 15-point loss to the Panthers on Jan. 9. "They do a great job of basically putting everyone to sleep."
Time for the country to wake up: The Panthers are one of the best mid-majors in the nation, a program that looks capable of rocking the NCAA tournament as George Mason did four years ago. "They're well-coached, they're well-balanced, they're experienced," says former UNI and current Iowa State coach Greg McDermott, whose Cyclones lost to the Panthers 63--60 in Ames on Dec. 2. "I think people are quickly realizing that this is a team that's no fun to face."
The Panthers aren't a lot of fun for the visiting announcers, either. The starting lineup includes Farokhmanesh, an Iowa City native who two years ago transferred from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids; Kwadzo Ahelegbe, a point guard from Minneapolis; and Jordan Eglseder, a 7-foot center from Bellevue, Iowa, a hamlet 105 miles east of Cedar Falls. The core of the team is a tight-knit quartet of seniors who provide a balanced scoring attack—at week's end Eglseder, Farokhmanesh, Koch and Ahelegbe were averaging between 13.1 and 9.2 points a game. Says Ahelegbe, "We just have that bone in our body where everyone's unselfish."
The confident and loose team ("They always play as if they're ahead," says McDermott) takes its personality from soft-spoken coach Ben Jacobson, a former UNI assistant who inherited the program in 2006 after McDermott left. "Coach Jake is never uptight," says Ahelegbe. "I can't even remember the last time he yelled at us—or if he ever has."
Last week, during the second half of a tight game at home against Bradley, the trigger-happy Farokhmanesh missed badly on an ill-advised 24-footer that would have made most coaches turn purple. "We come into the huddle, and I know he has to say something after a shot like that," says Farokhmanesh. "He just looks at me and says, 'You might want to step in there, that's a little outside your range. That's more my range.'"
The Panthers have turned into a Missouri Valley juggernaut thanks to a stifling defense—one "predicated on guarding the dribble," according to Jacobson—and an offense that keeps opponents off-balance with a dizzying assortment of plays. A typical team runs 15 to 20 plays during the season; the Panthers have more than 100. Jacobson tries to script the opening five to 10 minutes of a game. "Like a football team would do," he says. "The other team takes away the dive [play], then you make your adjustment."
For the Panthers, keeping track of all the plays can be daunting, even for a starting five that includes three seniors. "Coach was a valedictorian in his high school," says Farokhmanesh, "so maybe he just assumes we can just memorize all of them."
The valedictorian—he graduated first in his class of 36 in Mayville, N.D. ("My dad was the principal, so that certainly helped," Jacobson says jokingly)—is a numbers-savvy coach attuned to the efficiency statistics that are changing the way college basketball analysts look at team performance. The numbers explain why the Panthers are so improved from last season, when they went 23--11 and 14--4 in the Missouri Valley and earned their first invitation to the NCAA tournament in three years. Last season Northern Iowa ranked 122nd in the country in defensive efficiency (.987), a measure of points allowed per possession. At week's end this year's team ranked 21st in the nation (.886), a figure that has been trending downward all season. "The numbers back it up: We're getting stronger and stronger by the week," says Jacobson.