Northern Iowa’s decision to pull out of this year’s Prime Time League, reducing the league from six to four teams, comes at an interesting time.

The spotlight shifts to the Iowa players, who have the Hawkeyes’ program on a clear upswing based on current results and future prospects.

Eight returning and five incoming Hawkeyes lead the quartet of 10-player rosters for this year’s PTL series, which begins tonight at the North Liberty Community Center.

Since UNI coach Ben Jacobsen elected to keep the Panthers close to home in Cedar Falls — utilizing expanded coach-and-player contact as allowed by a new NCAA rule — PTL director Randy Larson reduced the field by two teams.

“Before, we had about 30 past and present Division-I players, and now we’ve got about 20, so there’s still five a team,” Larson said. “The actual competition will be exactly the same talent level — perhaps a bit higher, because now it’s all Iowa players, and man for man, the talent level is probably higher than what the UNI level is.”

Everybody from the 2011-12 playing rotation (except Matt Gatens and his fellow graduated seniors) which guided Iowa to an 18-17 record will descend on North Liberty. Zach McCabe, Melsahn Basabe, Aaron White and Devyn Marble, who each played in all 35 games last year, are spread out among the four selected teams.

Larson, coach of the Vinton Merchants/Mike Gatens Real Estate squad, made waves with the first overall pick Wednesday: Jarrod Uthoff, a recent Wisconsin transfer who can’t talk to Iowa coaches until Aug. 20.

He insisted the pick was based on a past relationship with Uthoff, not a statement he could outplay the likes of White or Basabe or incoming freshmen Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell. The former three-star recruit from Cedar Rapids Jefferson will sit out next year and pay his own way per Big Ten rules.

“Not only is this the fan’s morsel, but how about him? You think he’s hungry?” Larson said. “He goes to Wisconsin, spends a whole frustrating year watching them underachieve, knowing he could have helped them, decides it’s not his system, comes back and embraces Iowa even though they have not said one word to him.”

Under the six-team format, two games previously would be played at once in separate gyms. Now, fans can catch every exhibition, which will continue each Sunday afternoon through July 22 and culminate with the championship game Tuesday, July 24.

“When Coach (Steve) Alford was first hired and Jeff Horner, Adam Haluska and Greg Brunner were all Iowa-born heroes, there was very high interest (in PTL),” Larson said.

“But I don’t know if there’s ever been as much interest as there is now. Sometimes you have to be down a bit before you can really love the highs.”

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