UNI back in familiar NCAA Tournament territory

No. 11-seed Panthers return to site of 2010 Kansas upset to face No. 6-seed Texas in Oklahoma City

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CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa knows a thing or two about Oklahoma City.

Last time the Panthers were there, they put college basketball on its ear with a win against a Big 12 team, and made their way to the Sweet 16 past No. 1 Kansas.

When the bracket for the NCAA Tournament was revealed Sunday, more than a few people smiled at the matchup for No. 11-seed UNI: a date with No. 6-seed Texas, back in Oklahoma City on Friday. Coach Ben Jacobson sure remembers the last trip there, and isn’t exactly disappointed with the prospect of a return.

The Panthers also aren’t afraid of the idea of pulling off another upset.

“For some of us, it’s familiar,” Jacobson said through a smile. “It’s nice to be able to go back there, but this is a brand new team that hasn’t been there.

“This team has played (with a chip on its shoulder) pretty much the whole year. I don’t know that we’ve ever lost that. Even in the last six weeks, we’ve played like a team that’s got something to prove. So I think that will absolutely be a part of what we do this week.”

UNI (22-12) gets a Texas team that finished fourth in the Big 12 — widely considered the best conference this season — at 20-12 overall and 11-7 in conference play. The Longhorns also tout the toughest strength of schedule in the country this season, and share a common win with the Panthers over No. 1 seed North Carolina.

Texas also has a familiar face in head coach Shaka Smart, who UNI saw at the helm of VCU in back-to-back seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Given the Panthers have played the underdog role and come out on top so many times this season, another one coming along isn’t a challenge that will be overwhelming for this group.

“I think the biggest thing is to just leave it all out there and don’t play scared,” said senior guard Paul Jesperson. “When you get into tournaments like this — conference tournament and NCAA Tournament — it’s all about playing fearless. The more aggressive team is going to win because they’re going to be looser. That’s what we’ll pass to the younger guys.”

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Predictably, Jacobson and his players didn’t have a ton to say about what they expect to see against Texas specifically, since there wouldn’t have been any reason to scout them before now.

Even having played against Smart-coached teams before doesn’t offer a ton to fall back on, because the Longhorns don’t play the same chaos full-court defense as Smart’s VCU teams did. Jacobson expressed his deep respect for Smart and his credentials as a person and coach, and said he loves the challenge of cramming in all the prep required over the next few days.

“I’ve only seen enough to not know much, if that makes any sense at all,” Jacobson said. “In playing VCU a couple times, I’ve gotten to know Shaka. I’ve watched his teams quite a bit the last couple years just because I have so much respect for him. This year, again, watched part of the North Carolina game and some Big 12 play as a fan and friend of his. We’ll get to work on that (starting Sunday night).”

Jacobson and Co. also like the idea of playing Friday to get the extra day of travel and preparation. Having more time in such a tight window between selection and the game’s tip is invaluable.

But more than that, having the day to watch the Thursday games and familiarize themselves with their surroundings — both physically and mentally — will hopefully take the edge off, Jacobson said.

“If I had my choice, I’d rather play on Friday. You do have the extra day of prep; you have a little more time to make your travel plans,” Jacobson said. “Those things are nice; they take a little bit of the anxiety out of it because you have that extra 24 hours to do the stuff on the front end. Then your guys and your program, you get to watch a full day of games. You’ve got Thursday that’s full of games, so the guys get to see — a lot is going to happen Thursday. We know what the NCAA Tournament is all about.

“All kinds of stuff is going to happen Thursday. To have your first game on Friday is good. It’s good to be able to see a full day of games.”

UNI’s second straight NCAA Tournament berth comes on the heels of winning 12 of 13 games, including the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, after overcoming the well-covered midseason lull.

It’s been a long road to get here, but the Panthers have the same belief in each other now as Jacobson’s team did last time it was in Oklahoma City. It might be all they need.

“If you would’ve told me when we were 2-6 in conference and 10-11 overall that we’d be in this spot, I’d have been like, ‘OK, that sounds good, but is it actually going to happen?’ It took a lot of leadership and a lot of tough days we went through,” said senior guard Matt Bohannon. “The best part of it is we’re playing really good basketball right now, and we’re excited about our matchup. We believe, and more than anything in March, that’s all it takes.”

Tipoff Friday is set for approximately 8:30 p.m. on TBS. UNI-Texas follows the conclusion of Texas A&M and UW-Green Bay.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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