CEDAR FALLS – At first glance, the road for guard Wes Washpun from Cedar Rapids Washington High School to Cedar Falls and Northern Iowa seems as easy as hopping on Interstate-380.
But after an arduous recruiting process that saw him follow Coach Cuonzo Martin from Missouri State to Tennesse, then transferring away from Knoxville, Tenn., Washpun is back in his native Eastern Iowa to play for Coach Ben Jacobson and a team that recruited him heavily the first time around.
And with a skill set that will play right into the hands of a team hoping to change from slow-down, win-by-defense to up-tempo, Washpun could make a splash immediately for the Panthers (21-15, 11-7 in 2012-13).
“In terms of having a guy who can make some more plays … he’s got an opportunity to make a tremendous impact on what our season looks like,” Jacobson said at Northern Iowa’s men’s basketball media day on Wednesday. “He comes in every day, he wants to watch film with me. He wants to know, he wants to learn, he wants to do it.”
Washpun’s return has brought some excitement, especially for Panther fans who had a chance to see him play in high school.
And now that the mandatory one-year waiting period is over, the former Warrior is eager to get going.
“I’m really excited to be back. Extremely excited. It’s been a long road, but I learned a lot in the year I sat out, and I’m ready to apply that to my game this year,” Washpun said. “I think I bring a level of explosiveness and athleticism that maybe they didn’t have before. And definitely defensive pressure they haven’t had before as well.”
Teammates and coaches alike went out of their way to make it clear that with Washpun inserted into the lineup – and if he had to set a starting five today, Jacobson said Washpun would be in there – a backcourt that includes Deon Mitchell and Linn-Mar grad Matt Bohannon could be lethal.
That’s especially true with the intention from the coaching staff to run the ball much more frequently than the Panthers ever have in the past.
“(Washpun is) probably one of the most athletic guards I’ve ever played with. He’s just quick and his defensive ability – he’s long, so he can guard the wing, so he’s going to be a big advantage to the team,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s going to be more of an advantage for us, having two point guards in the back court. Of course we’re going to slow it down when we can, but playing up-tempo is what’s going to be best for us talent-wise on the team.”
When asked about the idea of switching to the run-and-gun style, each of the guards couldn’t help but smile wide.
It’s natural to the position – and all of them as individuals – to want to run in transition and score at a high rate.
“Any time you get told you’re going to run a little more, it’s exciting. It’s going to be different,” Bohannon said. “We’ve got some guys, like Wes and Deon, that can do some things that probably weren’t able to – well, we were able to last year, we just never really did that. I think this year we’re going to use them a little more in the open floor, which they’re really good at. I think that’s going to open a lot of things up, being able to do that.”
Though there’s plenty of praise for the redshirt sophomore – who along with now-Iowa swingman Josh Ogelsby guided Washington to back-to-back state tournament trips – Jacobson did point out Washpun is far from perfect.
There are several things Jacobson would like to see Washpun improve on – most notably playing defense away from the ball. Jacobson said only time will allow Washpun to understand he can’t let his guard down defensively in the Missouri Valley Conference and always be thinking ahead, or he’ll be beat.
“In a lot of areas, he’s been good and he stands out because of his athleticism and his ability to play in the open floor,” Jacobson said. “But I would tell you that there are a lot of things he’s going to have to learn through experience. There’s going to be a learning curve for him.
“He’ll get there over the course of time, but certainly is not there yet.”
Once it’s all in place, and this group of Panthers – which welcome at least seven new players into the rotation for significant minutes – can gel and come together, the players and coaches believe they have what it takes to win now.
“I feel like we’re capable of a lot of success,” Washpun said. “We have the right guys and the right chemistry and the right coaching staff to make a run at what we’re trying to do.”