Once his opportunity arrived last winter, Marvin Singleton mapped out his summer plans. The Minneapolis native had cracked the starting lineup at Northern Iowa late in his junior season, opening up a whole new world of possibility — if he was prepared to claim it.

That meant a summer of sweat and toil, of early mornings and late nights in the gym. The result has been a dream season for the former Hopkins High School star, one in which he has played a vital role for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament champions. After moving from small forward to power forward late last season — and building the endurance and muscle he needed to thrive — Singleton has started all 33 games, averaging 5.1 rebounds, 5.0 points and 25.5 minutes per game for the 11th-ranked Panthers.

Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson described Singleton as a “glue guy” who complements the Panthers’ leading man, MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle, as an inside force who plays physical defense and leads the team in offensive rebounds. Singleton already had made a significant mark at the Cedar Falls university through his volunteer work and a popular blog in which he promotes community service. His goal now is to leave just as large a legacy on the court, as the Panthers open play in the NCAA tournament Friday against Wyoming in Seattle.

“It was my last season coming up, and I knew I wanted to have a huge impact on the team and make sure my teammates could depend on me,” Singleton said. “If I was going to be in the starting lineup, I needed to be ready for it. I had to make a change in how much I wanted it and how much I wanted to work at it.

“This feels great. This is what all that hard work last summer was for, to have this kind of success as a team. And it’s not over yet.”

UNI (30-3) tied the school record for victories and received a No. 5 seed in the East Region, the highest in program history. It’s the kind of achievement Singleton became accustomed to at Hopkins. A two-time all-state selection who was twice named MVP at the state high school tournament, his Royals went 122-5 and won three Class 4A state titles during his time there.

Singleton chose UNI after attending camps there with his Howard Pulley AAU team. During his first two college seasons, the 6-6 Singleton played at small forward. He came off the bench in 37 games as a freshman and sophomore, averaging 1.5 rebounds and 1.6 points.

Toward the end of last season, Jacobson tried him at power forward, and Singleton meshed well with the 6-8 Tuttle. The potential for Singleton to start and play big minutes as a senior drove him to ramp up his offseason workouts, concentrating on his conditioning, ballhandling and jump shot. When Singleton was in the Twin Cities last summer, he worked out at the 43 Hoops Academy with former Timberwolf Chris Carr and played countless games at Hopkins open-gym sessions against other top locals.

He returned last fall as a more versatile player, one that takes pride in doing the unglamorous work. His stock in trade has been setting picks, drawing fouls, penetrating to the basket to open up shots for his teammates, and snaring the rebounds that fuel a defense ranked No. 4 in the country at 54.3 points per game.

“Even though Marvin didn’t play a lot as a freshman and sophomore, he continued to get better,” Jacobson said. “He’s our best defender up front and our most physical player. He had the patience and work ethic to earn playing time, and he’s helped us win a lot of games. I’m happy for him and so proud of him.”

Jacobson said he most admires Singleton for his work in the Cedar Falls community. An honor-roll student, Singleton mentors a third-grader at a local elementary school and volunteers with after-school programs, Boys & Girls Clubs, a wheelchair basketball team and several other kids’ activities. His blog (marvinsingleton.blogspot.com) encourages others to get involved and highlights the charitable work of NBA players.

Singleton was one of 10 MVC athletes in all winter sports to receive the league’s Leadership & Service Award. He loves to volunteer, he said, because he relishes the chance to make a difference in others’ lives. By becoming a difference-maker on the court, too, he has spread even more happiness.

“When you have success, it makes you realize that all the hard work you put in was worth it,” he said. “This season has been a lot of fun.”