CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Even Seth Tuttle is scratching his head.

Opposing coaches sure are.

After Wednesday’s blowout win against Illinois State, the Northern Iowa senior was asked what kind of defense he would suggest to slow himself down.

Tuttle didn’t have an answer. Because, mostly, he didn’t want to say.

“You set me up to sound arrogant,” he said about the question.

That’s Tuttle. In the midst of a season that has UNI rising in the national polls and Tuttle piling up recognition from around the country, he’s taking it all in stride and putting together one heck of a season. And one heck of a career.

Continuing to build

Tuttle has always been a good player. He was the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2011 and landed first-team All-MVC honors as a junior.

On the court, he’s an excellent passer. He has improved his perimeter jump shot and added more moves to his repertoire in the paint.

He’s worked to get bigger and stronger to better handle the physical rigors of Division I basketball. For comparison’s sake, Tuttle came to UNI at 6-foot-8, a touch over 200 pounds and weighed less than point guard Deon Mitchell. He’s now listed at 6-8, 240 pounds while Mitchell is down to 196.

But all of that doesn’t quite explain the run Tuttle has enjoyed recently.

UNI coach Ben Jacobson will always look at what a player does on his own time — in the offseason and outside of practice structure. That’s where Tuttle has taken the extra step over the last calendar year. It makes a difference in terms of skill work and from a mentality standpoint, as well.

“You put more time in, you’re going to feel better about what you’re doing. And another thing I’ve felt about that aspect is you’re less willing to give in,” Jacobson said. “You’ve put in that kind of time, you have a lot more at stake. That’s made the biggest difference.”

Basically, a highly-skilled player now has more incentive to succeed, and that’s been bad news for the rest of the MVC.

On the court, everything fans see is a product of what Tuttle has seen moments earlier. To hear him explain how the season has taken off is a classic example of everyone else on the court seemingly moving in slow motion.

“When I’m a freshman, I catch the ball on the block and see a double-team coming, my first reaction and instinct is, ‘Oh crap.’ I see a guy running at me, I have the ball, I have to do something. I panic and might just turn and throw it to the first guy I see open. That’s what they want you to look at,” Tuttle said. “This year, if I see a double-team coming, my first instinct is to find the next guy rotating and see where he’s going and if I can throw a pass fake to get him going and find the next open guy.”

All of the tools he shows today were hinted at while Tuttle led West Fork High School to a 27-0 record and the 2011 Class 2A state title. High school coach Jordan Nelson saw the player Tuttle could become during the run at West Fork.

“He’s a point guard big man, he knows where everybody needs to be,” Nelson said. “He did that in high school, just so much better at it now. He’s the floor leader.”

A dream season

The UNI program has never reached the heights it currently has at this point in the year.

Imaginations can run wild before the season tips off, but, realistically, blazing a new trail isn’t something anyone can expect. The Panthers are in the process of doing it.

“This is obviously what we all wanted, it’s what we all worked for, for this type of a season. But if you haven’t been here before, it is hard to imagine being [ranked] 13th and being 23-2,” Tuttle said. “For myself, individually, and the season I’ve been fortunate enough to have, it’s hard to see that without it actually taking place once or twice before.”

Tuttle extended it to himself because it’s a legitimate question — being considered as one of the better college basketball players in the country doesn’t just happen. A lot of hard work goes into it, but even then, not much is guaranteed.

Tuttle could very well be named an All-American at season’s end, which, even for his biggest supporters, seems to be a dream come true.

“As far as All-American,” Nelson said. “That’s not something you can predict.”

Surreal life

Going to the local Village Inn with teammates isn’t quite the same experience for Tuttle anymore.

That was the case when TVs were tuned to ESPN’s College GameDay during breakfast on Feb. 7. The pregame show featured a mock draft consisting of all college basketball players. A mock draft that happened to have Tuttle selected fifth overall by analyst and former Duke All-American Jay Williams. For comparison, Tuttle was taken fifth overall in the Prime Time League draft last summer.

Tuttle is a confirmed basketball junkie — he watches plenty of games and stays in touch with what’s going on around the country. And there was his name, alongside the nation’s elite.

Jeffrey Becker | USA TODAY Sports Images
The Panthers are 23-3 overall, 12-1 MVC.

“I get goosebumps, still, every time I see that. It makes me feel pretty proud, and moreso for our school,” Tuttle said. “When Northern Iowa pops up there with our logo, it makes everybody feel pretty good.”

Even Jacobson, who admitted he’s more used to the national spotlight after his team’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2010, was taken aback.

“I watch a lot of other teams play, I watch those shows, I watch College Gameday. I watch all that stuff. I love it, I enjoy it,” Jacobson said. “I had no thought that he would get drafted in that deal. Not because he wasn’t playing great, it just hadn’t happened before. I didn’t think twice about it. Then all of a sudden he pops up.”

All of that cranks up a few notches when viewed back in Sheffield, Tuttle’s hometown with a touch over 1,000 residents.

“He’s all over. So strange,” said Nelson. “I’ve known him since he was really little, so it’s strange but a lot of fun. I don’t think it’s getting to his head, he’s still the same old Seth and going out to do the best he can, make his team the best he can.”

Issuing a challenge

It hasn’t always been rosy for Tuttle. Some of his motivation has to come from within while the rest has come in the form of tough love from his parents and coaches.

“The deal was, when Seth was in high school, I basically challenged him every single day. He was always the tallest kid on the floor and didn’t have a lot of competition in junior high,” said Nelson.

“I know [Jacobson] has challenged him. PJ [Hogan], who recruited him, does the same thing. His ultimate goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament and win the MVC. I’m not surprised he’s on the verge of accomplishing those goals.”

Jacobson says he has always “gotten after” Tuttle, and has maybe been a little more stern at times this year. He’s a senior, he’s the leader of the team, and he can take it.

There was no better example than a 93-87 double-overtime loss at VCU on Dec. 13. Tuttle finished with a season-low 21 minutes, and when he went to the bench with 7:48 left in regulation, that’s where he stayed for the rest of the night.

The Panthers ended up coming back from an 11-point deficit, and, even as the game went back and forth down the stretch, UNI pressed on without its best player.

As Jacobson and Tuttle explain it, he simply wasn’t playing well enough on that night and the lineup that had clawed UNI back into the game was the lineup that was going to try to finish the job. Jacobson says it wasn’t his intention to send a message — his intention was to try to win the game — but that doesn’t mean something didn’t resonate when the Panthers headed home with their first loss of the year.

“I told myself I can’t let that happen. There’s no excuse for that to happen the rest of the year,” Tuttle said. “After that, it kind of clicked and started feeling like it did at the beginning of the year again. Every player goes through those stages, coach got me through it pretty quick.”

A perfect fit

It is a unique thing for a basketball team to run its offense through the center, but Tuttle is a unique player who can make it all work.

It’s, no doubt, part of the reason UNI is one of four teams in the country with at least 23 wins by Valentine’s Day. And it’s part of the reason the Panthers don’t see the same defensive scheme from opponents from game to game — they’re all still trying to figure it out.

The Tuttle way
2011-12 34 118-181 85-126 190 27 15 36
2012-13 36 143-257 117-151 238 36 26 60
2013-14 31 156-300 157-203 249 30 34 72

It starts with the ball screen and pick-and-roll action at the top of the key. Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun are experienced guards with the quickness to get into the lane.

If Tuttle catches it on the perimeter, he can take a jump shot and is making 3-pointers at a better rate (45.5 percent) than anyone else on the team. Forcing him to drive is becoming an even less fruitful endeavor as he ranks 19th in the country with 64.7 percent shooting inside the arc.

And if double-teaming is the plan, passing has become perhaps the best part of his game and UNI’s shooters — Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson, Nate Buss and Jeremy Morgan — are becoming more and more comfortable.

“His unselfishness is what makes it all go. At the end of the day, with all of the things he does really well, that versatility helps him being effective, but his unselfishness is what makes it all go,” said Jacobson. “It fits perfectly with the group of guys we have.”

Through it all, Tuttle and the Panthers have taken it in stride and continued to roll with what they need to do to be successful. That’s no surprise.

“Whenever he plays next, he’s going to be the same old Seth,” said Nelson. “Him and his dad are the same guy … low key but everybody likes them.”

This article was written by Carson Tigges from Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.