King Tut

Seth Tuttle came to Northern Iowa as a modestly recruited, string-bean post player from West Fork High School.

Today he is the toast of the Missouri Valley Conference, and even a hot topic of conversation among basketball gurus nation-wide.

Tuttle’s rise to prominence has paralleled the ascension of his Panthers, who are currently 25-2 overall and ranked 11th in the country. Last week, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said on Twitter: ”I’d put Northern Iowa’s Seth Tuttle up with any big man in the country. Skilled, savvy, and knows how to play. Tuttle is the real deal.”

High praise for a former three-star prospect from Sheffield – a town of 1,100 residents located 20 miles south of Mason City – whose official Div. I offer list included only UNI, Colorado State and Northern Colorado.

Tuttle arrived in Cedar Falls four years ago as a 6-foot-8, 207-pound ”center.” Panther head coach Ben Jacobson famously jokes that his point guard, fellow freshman Deon Mitchell, weighed a pound more than Tuttle at the time.

No one’s laughing about Tuttle’s stature anymore. He’s a solid 240 pounds, with the versatility to rely either on the old skill set developed as an underclassmen or his newer, more traditional frontcourt frame – depending on the circumstance.

Bilas and other talking heads have started to tout Tuttle’s prowess, but they aren’t alone. The number crunchers agree Tuttle should be included on a very short list of elite players in college basketball this season.

Stat wizard Ken Pomeroy had blog entry on his website Tuesday titled, ”The face of pacism: Seth Tuttle.” Pomeroy noted, ”among tournament teams, no player is more valuable to his squad than Tuttle. And no player is carving up his conference like him, either. At this moment, Tuttle is leading the MVC in both offensive rating and usage rate simultaneously. That’s Damian Lillard-type stuff. He’s the most efficient player while having the largest role in his team’s offense.”

John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, an objective system that has compared players statistically for well over a decade, currently ranks Tuttle No. 2 in the entire country behind only Wisconsin All-American and Wooden Award favorite Frank Kaminsky. Jahlil Okafor, Duke’s phenomenal freshman and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, recently slipped behind Tuttle on the list.

Per 100 possessions, Tuttle averages 38 points, 15.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists – more points and assists than both Kaminsky (36.9/5.2) and Okafor (35.6/2.6).

UNI has established itself as one of the most efficient teams in the country, and Tuttle’s statistics mirror that. He makes nearly two-thirds of his two-point shots, 77 percent of his free throws, and when he does step outside, he’s even shooting 49 percent from behind the three-point line. As of Tuesday, Tuttle was averaging 16.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists for the Panthers, who had reeled off 13 straight victories in the MVC.

Bilas told ESPN’s ”Pardon the Interruption” viewers yesterday that the current UNI outfit is markedly better than the 2009-10 squad that took down top-seeded Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers, who are 6-1 against RPI Top-100 teams and rated 13th nationally in BPI, appear to be on track for a top four seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

With the beautiful mess that is March Madness right around the corner, Northern Iowa has the look of a team that could do plenty of damage to a bracket. If that happens, expect casual fans and the mainstream media to realize what the best in the business and Panther die-hards have known for quite some time: Tuttle and his teammates were among the very best all along.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net