CEDAR FALLS — Not long after joining Northern Iowa’s men’s basketball staff last summer as a graduate manager, Seth Tuttle set a packet of plays on Ben Jacobson’s desk.
Days went by and UNI’s head coach hadn’t said anything to Tuttle, who spent three years playing professional basketball in Europe after his UNI days.
Being the outgoing personality he is, Tuttle asked his old coach for his thoughts.
“He wasn’t sure,” Tuttle said.
Time went by and Jacobson, in his 13th season at UNI. eventually greenlit an offensive scheme change to a system Tuttle said “I fell in love with” while playing overseas for Brian Lynch at Limburg United and Spirou Charleroi.
The Panthers’ number of shooters and lack of a traditional post player for the first time in Jacobson’s tenure — along with their respect for Tuttle’s basketball IQ — gave the staff the confidence to make the change.
“People might not believe it, but Seth’s had ideas since he played for us,” assistant coach Erik Crawford said with a grin. “It came at a perfect time. Coming off last season, obviously offensively we weren’t one of the better teams in the league. I think it was good for Coach (Jacobson) to kind of let us run with some of that stuff and I think it’s been good for the players.”
Tuttle’s enthusiasm and passion for being in the middle of the install and growth of a new offense at his alma mater oozes out of him. His eyes light up as he talks about breakthrough moments.
“The favorite part for me is they’re continuing to grasp the why,” Tuttle said. “Why is this small detail so important? Now you can see they’re starting to get that on their own.”
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There have been struggles, but a 65.8 scoring average is fifth all-time in the Jacobson era, and Jacobson said this week he likes what he saw from the scheme after UNI’s first regular-season game.
“The guys have done a tremendous job, they really have, not only with the offense being new, but the guys in and out of the lineup early on,” Jacobson said. “We’ve been able to add as we’ve gone along and what we’ve seen here probably in the last 10 games — the last two not as good — we’ve been good at that end.”
UNI’s opponents have taken notice of the change. After a one-point loss to Loyola last week, Coach Porter Moser spoke highly of the Panthers’ scheme.
Peers also have noticed the whiteboard Crawford occasionally writes plays on during games, and Crawford admits he’s gotten texts from friends about it.
“I think it was a little bit of shock for some people to see (the whiteboard),” Crawford said. “It just seems different for UNI to have a whiteboard on the bench (for) calling plays. It just made it a little bit easier.”
Crawford and Tuttle can be seen constantly communicating throughout games while Tuttle holds a folded sheet of paper with plays and Crawford holds his whiteboard. Tuttle is too modest to acknowledge what seems to be a co-offensive coordinator dynamic, but Crawford described what’s quickly become a productive coaching relationship.
“We definitely bounce ideas off each other the whole game,” Crawford said. “I think having us call some of the actions has freed (Coach Jacobson) up to watch a little bit more of the game and not have to always be so locked in to every single aspect.”
Over the past month, Tuttle and Crawford have been encouraged by how often their players have gotten “downhill” within the offense.
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“It’s (up-tempo). It’s fast. I know it’s extremely hard to guard. I had to guard (this offense) as well in practice,” Tuttle said. “Really there’s nothing you can do to stop it if you understand how (the opponent) is trying to play defense. It’s like playing chess. There’s always something you can do to counter how they’re playing. It’s just figuring out what’s going to work in that (particular) game and then making those reads quick and being aggressive.”
UNI (14-17, 9-9) and its new offense face Southern Illinois (17-14, 10-8) Friday in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinals. The third-seeded Salukis swept the sixth-seeded Panthers in the regular season, but Tuttle and Crawford are confident they’ll win this round of chess.