UNI has finished in the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference in a league-best 14-straight years and has posted 11 20-win seasons since 2003-04.
The Panthers entered the year having made seven NCAA Tournament appearances since 2004 – the most in the Missouri Valley (yup, including Wichita State) – and had put together a number of memorable Tourney performances during that run.
Few fans can forget the zealous late-game strategy of one Ali Farokhmanesh, who in 2010 took a step back 3-pointer, rather than run the clock down, to send UNI to the Sweet 16 with a upset win over top seed Kansas.
Or just two years ago, when Paul Jesperson hit a halfcourt heave at the buzzer to send the Panthers past Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns in the Round of 64.
Ok, so the team has been one of the most successful mid-majors in the country over the past 10+ years.
But the home environment certainly matches that elite performance on the court.
The McLeod Center seats 7,018 and is at capacity nearly every contest. The boisterous student section clads itself in gold and purple, including the famous overalls crew that sits in the front row. But most impressively, the students perform a choreographed routine during a second half media timeout known as “The Interlude” that has gained the group national attention.
It’s a pretty impressive sight in person and in big games, the building just flat out shakes.
On top of that, Cedar Falls, Iowa, isn’t exactly the easiest place to get to. Teams can fly to Des Moines or the Quad Cities and bus the 2+ hours it takes to arrive. Or, in the case of George Mason men’s basketball, even with a charter flight into nearby Waterloo, the team still had to grab a pit stop in Akron to refuel.
Mason chartered to UNI on a frosty late November day
Despite the odds of winning at UNI (KenPom.com gave the Patriots a 14% chance to win), Mason arrived in Iowa with some confidence. The Patriots were in the midst of a three-game winning streak after beginning the year 1-3.
And historically, one of those 10 non-conference wins by a Northern Iowa opponent in McLeod had come during the 2011 BracketBuster, when Mason won 77-71 en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Even the team’s 2014 meeting, when UNI clearly fielded the better team, went to overtime in Cedar Falls.
So Mason held confident and prepared for what was sure to be a battle in the Midwest.
The Patriots arrived in Waterloo the evening of Tuesday, November 29, and many of the players remarked on a certain geographic trend they were seeing as they boarded the bus to the hotel from the tarmac.
“Wow…it’s really flat here.”
Sight lines stretched for days as the bus passed Hy-Vees, Culvers and a plethora of other Midwest cultural staples.