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Jeff Eisenberg

Northern Iowa won't get respect until it wins a first-round game

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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There's only one reason Northern Iowa isn't perceived the same way as Butler and Gonzaga among casual college basketball fans: The Panthers haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1990.

Whereas Northern Iowa's fellow mid-major powers have both made recent Sweet 16 runs, the Panthers have experienced four eerily similar five-point first-round losses in the past six years. Their chance to end that streak will come Thursday against UNLV in a first-round NCAA tournament game, and for the first time in program history, anything short of a victory will be viewed as a major disappointment.

While several of Northern Iowa's previous NCAA tournament teams put a scare into marquee opponents, the Panthers have never managed to get over that hump.

As a 14 seed in 2004, they rallied from 17 down to get within three of Final Four-bound Georgia Tech in the final minute, but Ben Jacobson's off-balance 3-pointer rimmed out and the Yellowjackets held on.

As an 11 seed in 2005, they fought back from a 16-point second-half deficit against Wisconsin, but again never got closer than three.

As a 10 seed in 2006, they led Georgetown into the second half behind the hot shooting of senior John Little, but succumbed to the size of Roy Hibbert down the stretch.

And finally as a No. 12 seed in 2009, they rallied from 12 down at halftime to pull within two in the final minute on Kerwin Dunham's 3-pointer, but Purdue held them off to condemn them to yet another loss.

It's a testament to how much better this Northern Iowa team is than the previous ones that the Panthers got their highest NCAA tournament seed ever on Sunday yet were disappointed with the outcome. Having gone 28-4 and swept both the regular season and tournament titles in the Missouri Valley Conference, Northern Iowa felt it deserved better than a No. 9 seed.

"I'll admit surprise about seeing Northern Iowa on the nine line," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said on a Sunday night teleconference. "I can't really understand how they came out as a nine seed, but when you look at their company on the eight, nine lines across the tournament, it's a pretty impressive group."

There's little hope for a deep NCAA tournament run with top-seeded Kansas looming in the second round, but a win over a well-respected UNLV team and a decent showing against the Jayhawks would do wonders for Northern Iowa's image.

To hardcore basketball fans, the Panthers are the Missouri Valley's powerhouse. To the general public, they're still just first-round fodder.

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