CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – For one magical week last March, Cedar Falls was the center of the college basketball world.
Plucky Northern Iowa turned the NCAA tournament upside down by stunning top-seeded Kansas, 69-67, endearing them to fans from coast to coast.
Ali Farokhmanesh was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Coach Ben Jacobson was a rising star with a new 10-year contract, and it seemed like almost everyone in America was rooting for the unheralded Panthers to do it again vs. Michigan State.
But the Spartans wore down Northern Iowa en route to the Final Four, and life soon returned to normal in the sleepy college town two hours northeast of Des Moines.
Now comes the year after "the year." Don't expect any sort of hangover from the Panthers, who've said they've already put last March behind them.
"It's just about forgetting about it. It's about what you've done for me lately. What we've done lately is practice three times and work on defense. We didn't go in and watch the Kansas game," senior point Kwadzo Ahelegbe said. "This team is a lot different from last year."
It sure is, because the Panthers lost Farokhmanesh and two other starters — Missouri Valley player of the year Adam Koch and center Jordan Eglseder — from the best team in school history.
Replacing them won't be easy, but Jacobson is confident the system he's put in place over the past four seasons will help Northern Iowa compete for the Valley title and its sixth NCAA tournament bid in eight years.
The Panthers, who have eight true or redshirt freshmen on the roster, get a tough opening test at Syracuse on Nov. 12.
"They expect to be in the mix in February. They expect to be knocking on the door for a conference championship or an NCAA tournament bid. They expect that. That's their mentality," Jacobson said. "It's really fun to be around them, because they expect to be good."
Though Farokhmanesh made the biggest splash with a gutsy 3 that knocked off the Jayhawks, the player the Panthers might miss the most is Adam Koch.
It's a good thing the Panthers have another Koch to lean on.
Sophomore Jake Koch, Adam's little brother, averaged 3.5 points and 2.7 rebounds a year ago, but 13-point performance in a win over Wichita State in the Valley title game showed a glimpse of what he could be over the next three years.
Jake Koch, who has put on about 20 pounds, will play extensively down low with sophomore center Austin Pehl and two-time Valley Sixth Man of the Year Lucas O'Rear, who will make the transition from reserve spark plug to starter.
"It's definitely going to be a little different," O'Rear said. "When I was coming off the bench, you could sit around on the bench and see how the game was flowing and go in there and see what you can do. Now, it's going to be, from the get-go for going to have to try to feel it out."
The Panthers should have enough depth to overcome the absence of Farokhmanesh, though his ability to hit clutch 3s will surely be missed.
Ahelegbe should play a more prominent role on the both ends of the floor, as should junior Johnny Moran. Youngsters Marc Sonnen and Anthony James looked solid in limited duty a year ago and should also see more playing time.
The key to Northern Iowa's backcourt will be Ahelegbe, the most explosive player the Panthers have left.
"His role, it may change slightly in terms of more opportunities," Jacobson said. "His job is to make his teammates better, and he's got a great ability to do that."
There are plenty of question marks surrounding the Panthers, and it could take some time before Jacobson settles on a rotation.
But Jacobson won't deviate from his winning formula, which thrives on tough defense and a smart, efficient offense, and whichever players fit that mold best will be the ones getting playing time.
"We've got a lot of work to do. We've got some younger guys. We've got some new guys. But the mentality of our upperclassmen is 'We're going to be good,'" Jacobson said.