CEDAR FALLS -- Last season was a wildly inconsistent one for the University of Northern Iowa men's basketball team, and few things reflected that more than the Panthers' starting rotation.
When UNI could stick with a lineup, things tended to go smoothly.
The Panthers used the same starting five in their first four games and got off to a 3-1 start. Things also gelled in the final 14 games, as the lineup of Jeremy Morgan, Jordan Ashton, Klint Carlson, Bennett Koch and Juwan McCloud led UNI to a 9-5 mark.
But prior to settling on that final group, the Panthers endured a prolonged trial and error process in which the negatives far outweighed the positives.
In the other 12 games, the Panthers used seven different lineups, compiling a 2-10 record in the process. Those struggles played a big role in UNI enduring the first losing season of the Ben Jacobson era.
Heading into 2017-18, finding consistency in the starting five is a major priority for the 12th-year coach.
"You look back over the course of our teams, most years, once we've gotten started and guys have gotten comfortable in their role as a starter or coming off the bench, it's pretty much stayed that way throughout a season," Jacobson said at the team's media day Wednesday.
"I'd much prefer not to be in that spot (where we're rotating lineups). I don't think we will be with this team."
One reason for his confidence is that several steady starters are back this year.
Leading the charge in the frontcourt will be fifth-year seniors Carlson and Koch. Also expected to see time with the first unit is junior Wyatt Lohaus, who started the first four games a year ago before suffering an ankle injury that resulted in him earning a medical redshirt.
And while the other two positions are more unsettled, Jacobson said it's not due to a lack of options.
After making 28 starts during an uneven freshman campaign, McCloud is again primed to run the point this season. However, he's getting a serious push from fellow sophomore Spencer Haldeman, a stronger shooter who averaged more minutes per game (22.6-20.3) than McCloud in a reserve role last season.
The final spot will be occupied by an inexperienced player, as three of the four vying for it have yet to play a minute at UNI.
Sophomore Isaiah Brown started two non-conference contests but fell out of the rotation during Valley play. Elsewhere, true freshman Tywhon Pickford, redshirt freshman Tanner Lohaus and redshirt sophomore Adam McDermott, a transfer from North Dakota, are all said to be in the running for the last spot.
Though uncertainty remains, Jacobson said it isn't a bad thing. Hoping to go nine to 11 deep in the rotation, he sees serious competition bringing out the best in his prospective starters.
"I really like the competition we've got going on at practice right now," Jacobson said. "We've got to make sure it's at a really high level right now. It's one thing to have guys competing but not at a level that's going to allow you to get better and allow you to put yourself in a position to win a championship."
He added it will be crucial for those who don't end up landing starting spots to keep that competitive fire, so they can be called upon to help keep top Panther players fresh.
"Bennett and Klint are our two best players. But I don't want those guys to play 35 minutes a night," Jacobson said. "That gets to be a really long season."
BREAKING HIS SILENCE: After initially declining comment on the recent FBI investigation into improprieties by several major NCAA basketball programs, Jacobson didn't hold back when asked about the subject Wednesday.
"I think it's good that it's happened," he said. "It's going to make our game better. We're going to come out of this better because of it.
"There's a couple dynamics to it. With the shoe companies, the agents, the kids, colleges ... because we don't live in that world, I don't have all the answers to it, but there's certainly some things from a rules standpoint that need to get addressed, that need to get changed. There's also guys that are knowingly and willingly breaking the rules and that needs to get changed.
"And I think the only way you change that is increasing the penalties. If you're going to knowingly and willingly break the rules, the penalties should be really stiff."
Having just worked his way through the recruiting process, UNI freshman Pickford said he didn't encounter any such shadiness when schools were courting him.
"I don't really pay attention to that stuff," Pickford said. "I don't follow much on social media, so I don't really know what's going on."
INJURIES: Some ailments have sprung up early in the season for the Panthers, among them a foot injury to senior guard Hunter Rhodes.
Rhodes is dealing with a bout of plantar fasciitis, which has already forced him to miss a week of practice. Jacobson estimated it would be a 2-4 week healing process, but Rhodes was confident his recovery would be on the shorter end.
"I'm hoping to be ready before then," he said. "I felt it right away and I had to be on crutches, but it's feeling a lot better. I think I'll be fine."
Sophomore Justin Dahl (neck, shoulder) is also out of action, with Jacobson hoping he'll be back within 7-to-10 days.
Assistant coach Erik Crawford, who ruptured his patella tendon in a post-workout accident in September, has yet to be a full participant in practice, but has been able to make his way back onto the floor.
Though he's got several months of recovery ahead of him, Crawford expects to be back on the bench for UNI's season-opening scrimmage against North Carolina-Pembroke on Nov. 5.