Wichita State has been so dominant in the Missouri Valley, it can be tough for players on other teams to get noticed.

Northern Iowa star Seth Tuttle might be good enough to buck that trend.

Tuttle is one of the nation's most overlooked big men as he heads into his final season with the Panthers, who hope to return to the NCAA tournament after a four-year absence.

Tuttle, a 6-foot-8 forward, was a first-team All-Valley pick in the 2013-14 season after leading Northern Iowa in points (15.4), rebounds (8.0) and blocks (1.1) per game.

Tuttle's breakout season got a bit lost in the wake of Wichita State's unbeaten run to the Valley title. But those who follow the league know Tuttle could challenge Wichita State's Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker for player of the year honors.

"This is part of his charge. What he's after is doing what he can on a daily basis to put our team in a position to win a championship," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "You want people to pay more attention to you, you want people to talk about you more, then you need to be on a team that wins."

In many ways, Tuttle is the prototypical hard-working, small-town kid that Jacobson relies on to maintain a successful program in faraway Cedar Falls.

Tuttle grew up in Sheffield, Iowa, where he led West Fork High to four straight Corn Bowl Conference titles. High majors like Iowa, Iowa State and Wisconsin were after Tuttle, but he clicked with the Panthers' coaching staff and wanted to be close to home.

Tuttle immediately became a cornerstone of the program — and a much better scorer than Jacobson envisioned.

Tuttle was the first freshman to lead the Valley in field-goal percentage (.652), and was chosen as the league's freshman of the year despite being a rail-thin 207 pounds. He reached double figures in scoring 19 times as a sophomore, and the Panthers went 14-5 in those games.

"I didn't see him much as a scorer," Jacobson said. "I saw him as much more of a guy who is going to go and get the basketball ... more of a guy who was going to get a lot of things done and not necessarily a guy who you knew was going to get 1,500 or 1,800 points or however many he's going to end up with.

"He's put some time in."

Last season, Tuttle emerged as one of the country's best mid-major forwards.

Tuttle had 19 points and nine rebounds against Maryland, and he banked in a 3 at the buzzer that forced overtime against Iowa State. He also had 14 points and 11 rebounds against Virginia, and Tuttle's tip-in with just over a second left pushed the Panthers past Missouri State on the road.

Tuttle has bulked up to 240 pounds, and Jacobson said he has also taken a big step forward as a leader since the middle of last season.

Tuttle recently strained his left Achilles tendon. But Jacobson said Monday that he could return to practice in as soon as a week.

"It's like a little ladder. The next year, you move up it," Tuttle said. "I'm the senior this year. I'm one of the guys who played the most last year, so it was time for me to start doing what the guys were doing when I was a freshman."

Perhaps the biggest reason the Panthers could push for an NCAA tournament bid is that Tuttle won't be forced to carry them this season.

Northern Iowa also brings back junior guards Wes Washpun and Deon Mitchell, and sophomore Jeremy Morgan is an intriguing piece on the perimeter. Paul Jesperson, a junior guard who transferred from Virginia, could play a significant role if his defense catches up with his offense.

But the Panthers will be guided by Tuttle, the top returning post player in the Valley.

"He hates to lose," Mitchell said. "He's a hard worker. He's always focused. He's always paying attention. He'll do whatever he has to do for his teammates. We go when he goes. He's our leader and we're following him."

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