Jacobson Back at Northern Iowa After Flirting with A&M

Northern Iowa men's basketball coach Ben Jacobson talks to reporters during the team's media day at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Rich Chase) MAGS OUT TV OUT

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By James Steward

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — Most figured that if Ben Jacobson was ever going to leave Northern Iowa, it would have come on the heels of the Panthers' stirring run to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 in 2010.

That's what made his interest in the Texas A&M job last spring so surprising.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Jacobson was granted permission by athletic director Troy Dannen in May to talk with the Aggies about their opening. Nothing came of it, as Texas A&M hired Billy Kennedy and Jacobson pledged his commitment to Northern Iowa.

Jacobson's back at the place he never left, trying to build a team that can contend for the Missouri Valley Conference title after folding down the stretch in 2010-11.

Jacobson said Tuesday at the team's annual media day that the support he has received from the community and the school and the relationships he has built with his players helped sway his decision to stay.

"We had some serious discussions about that opportunity," said Jacobson, who's entering his sixth season as Northern Iowa's head coach. "At the end of the day, it ended up being an easier decision than what I might have thought going into it simply because we've got such a good thing going here."

It wasn't such a good thing at the end of last season.

The glow from that memorable NCAA tournament run some 19 months back faded with a 1-7 stretch to end Missouri Valley play, culminating in consecutive losses to Creighton.

The Panthers finished 20-14, reaching the 20-win plateau for the third straight season. But it took a stint in the lower-tier CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament to do so.

The Aggies came calling two months later, as Mark Turgeon left to replace the retired Gary Williams at Maryland.

Though Jacobson had been a hot property after leading the Panthers past top-seeded Kansas in March 2010, he signed a 10-year contract with Northern Iowa shortly before losing to Michigan State in the regional semifinals.

Still, Jacobson was intrigued by the opportunity to lead a high-major program like the Aggies.

"They've positioned themselves well as a basketball program, as an athletic department. They've got some things from a resource standpoint, from a facility standpoint, that are pretty good. Enough to take a look," Jacobson said.

But that was all it ended up being.

Now, Jacobson's challenge will be rebuilding the Panthers after a troubling finish and the loss of senior point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe and frontcourt spark plug Lucas O'Rear.

Ahelegbe was a first-team All-Valley pick and the league's defensive player of the year. O'Rear's presence was highlighted by the fractured ankle that ended his final season and precipitated Northern Iowa's slide from the top of the league standings in early February.

This season's team will be built around guard Anthony James, who averaged 12.4 points as a sophomore in 2010-11, and senior perimeter threat Johnny Moran, who Jacobson said is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.

Forward Jake Koch, the team's top returning post player, is working his way back from ankle surgery. Jacobson said Monday that center Austin Pehl will miss the next 5-to-6 weeks with a stress fracture in his shin.

Northern Iowa likely won't be picked to win the Valley this season. But the Panthers have their coach back after a brief look at what life could be like if he had left.

"This place has been very good to me, and very loyal and very supportive, and those are things that I do not take lightly in any way," Jacobson said. It was "a combination of factors as to why I feel like I'm in the right place and continue to really enjoy being our head coach."

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