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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – One of the Northern Iowa's hallmarks under basketball coach Ben Jacobson has been veteran leadership.
The Panthers won't have much of that to lean on this season.
Three starters and three of the program's top four scorers have moved on from last season's 21-win team, leaving Jacobson with the least experienced group of his eight-year tenure in Cedar Falls.
The Panthers have 10 newcomers — including five true freshmen and Tennessee transfer Wes Washpun — that they'll need to find roles for before the season opener Nov. 9 at Ohio.
"We've got to work on that. It's going to be very important for us to do everything we can to get some guys up to speed," Jacobson said Wednesday during the team's media day.
The most intriguing newcomer is Washpun, a 6-foot-1 guard and a former star at Cedar Rapids Washington High. He returned home after just a year with the Volunteers.
Washpun didn't play much at Tennessee. But he's expected to play a key role for the Panthers.
Washpun, who practiced last season with Northern Iowa while taking a redshirt year, could allow the Panthers to play much faster than they have in the past.
Washpun still has a lot to work on, especially on defense. But he also has a chance to add a new dimension to what Northern Iowa does offensively.
"I do feel like the up-tempo fits my style a little bit more," Washpun said.
The Panthers are expected to pair Washpun with junior Deon Mitchell, by far the most seasoned guard on the roster.
Though he and Washpun are both point guards, Northern Iowa believes they can be successful playing together. Mitchell scored 9.3 points a game last season and led the team with 126 assists, and he said he's looking forward to sharing playmaking duties with Washpun.
"I think it's going to help us more because he can get the outlet (pass) or I can get the outlet, so I feel like that's going to be an advantage for us to be able to get the ball up the floor faster," Mitchell said.
The only freshmen expected to play immediately are guard Jeremy Morgan, an intriguing 6-foot-5 wing player from Iowa City, and Ankeny (Iowa) center Ted Friedman.
Jacobson indicated that Friedman could push for starter-type minutes right away — which was both a nod to his potential and a stark example of how thin the Panthers could be in the frontcourt.
Northern Iowa is thus likely going to need a big year from junior forward Seth Tuttle.
The 6-foot-8 Tuttle is the team's leading returning scorer at 11.4 points per game and by far its best rebounder. Jacobson said Tuttle spent the summer working on improving his 3-point shooting and his offensive post moves, and he also put on an extra 10 pounds.
Tuttle has the potential to be one of the best players in the Missouri Valley conference. To do that, Jacobson believes that Tuttle will need to learn to maintain his intensity for longer stretches.
"He's so effective when he's playing really, really hard, and we're encouraging him to do it longer. That's going to help him get to that next place," Jacobson said.
The Panthers also have six reserves back for 2013-14, a veteran group led by guard Matt Bohannon and forwards Chip Rank and Nate Buss. But they and everyone else on the team will have either new or expanded roles this season, so Jacobson is prepared to be as patient as possible early on.
"The season is much more of a process than it is about as good as we possibly can on day 1, or in week 2 or the first month. We want to get as good as we can as fast as we can," Jacobson said. "But I think it's so important for the players to understand...that building your team is a process. And we want to be playing as well as we can when we get to mid-January, somewhere around that time, and finish strong,"
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