Three years in the making, Wes Washpun finally runs the show at Northern Iowa and believes that the made-over Panthers can duplicate recent success.
The redshirt senior ably stepped into a leadership role this season as the Panthers adjust to life without All-America forward Seth Tuttle and two other starters from the team that won 31 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we’re still trying to figure it out a little bit,” Washpun said. “We’re getting better every game. We’re a different team than we were last year and we haven’t quite found our identity yet. But it’s still early in the season. I think when we do, we have a chance to be a special team.”
The Panthers (5-2) conclude an Eastern swing at George Mason (4-5) Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ASN, a trip that included a two-hour, private tour of the U.S. Capitol on Sunday by Iowa senior U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and his wife, Barbara.
“A really unique and awesome experience for all of us,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “Having Sen. Grassley and his wife give us a tour, telling stories and providing a lot of background, that was the best part of it for me.”
The Panthers aim to be able to tell their own story this season. They already have an impressive chapter, with a 71-67 win against nationally-ranked North Carolina, a game in which Washpun had 21 points, eight assists, two steals and just two turnovers in 36 minutes.
Washpun’s playing time and productivity essentially doubled from last season, when he was the Missouri Valley Conference Sixth Man of the Year. He averages a team-high 15.4 points per game, one of four players in double figures, and shoots 54 percent from the field. Over the past five games, he averaged seven assists per game, with a better than 3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio.
“My approach depends on the game and the situation and what the coaches think we need,” Washpun said. “If they need me to attack and score right away, I’ll do that. If it’s to get everybody in the flow, I’ll do that.”
Washpun has had an unusual career arc at Northern Iowa. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he began his college career at Tennessee, but transferred to Northern Iowa after his freshman year so that family could see him play.
He started 29 of 31 games as a redshirt sophomore, but last season the staff decided to have him come off the bench on an exceptionally deep team that had nine players average between four and 15 points per game.
“He was real honest about it,” Jacobson said. “He didn’t like it. He would have rather been a starter, but he handled coming off the bench very well and was a big contributor to our success.”
Said Washpun: “The coaches wanted me to come off the bench and give us some energy, so I accepted that role. With the success that we were having, I tried to look at the big picture and stay positive.”
Knowing that his role and playing time would expand this season, Washpun prepared exceptionally hard in the summer and offseason. Jacobson said that he improved his pace and decision making.
“The game has slowed down a lot for me,” Washpun said. “Being able to make different decisions and recognizing what we need. My turnovers were a little higher than I would have liked last year and I’ve gotten better at taking care of the ball.”
Washpun finally fulfills the role he hoped he’d play all along. He said that he has no regrets about how his career has played out, figuring that things occur for a reason. He’s mature enough not to try to make up for lost time or to fill a box score.
“I tried to focus on team goals,” Washpun said. “Winning a conference championship, winning the Missouri Valley tournament, getting back to the NCAA Tournament. If we do that, the other stuff will take care of itself.”