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OKLAHOMA CITY — Shaka Smart has seen enough of Northern Iowa to know better than to assume or overlook anything.
The former VCU head coach and his staff — most of which followed him to Texas — have faced off against the Panthers and head coach Ben Jacobson four times, so he knows some of the hallmarks of a Jacobson-coached team. Before his team’s practice Thursday, Smart lauded UNI and its style.
“I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I think sometimes coaches receive a certain level of national attention based on different factors, but I think he’s one of the best. If you look at what he’s done at Northern Iowa, it really speaks for itself,” Smart said of Jacobson. “They always have great shooting. They always have really good guard play, so their guards can make plays for each other and for the rest of their guys. Then on the defensive end, they’re phenomenal with providing help. I heard somebody describe them as five guys guarding the basketball, and that’s what you want to do.
“I just think he gets those guys to play really, really well together.”
Smart and his team have had an up-and-down year of their own, but got a bit of an up this week when they learned center Cameron Ridley will be available for the Longhorns against the Panthers on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Ridley missed the entire Big 12 season with a broken foot, and the hope from Texas is he could play as much as 20 minutes against UNI.
With Smart knowing well how the Panthers can go small, how Ridley and fellow center Prince Ibeh are used is a bit of a mystery. Jacobson was able to use Klint Carlson creatively in going small against Evansville and Wichita State, and Smart expects that again.
“When they go small, I mean, it’s challenging to kind of figure out how you want to defend them because they put Carlson at the 5, and he can shoot, he can drive,” Smart said. “And then everyone else out there can shoot as well. So if he and our other big guys are playing a lot and they’re playing smaller, then our bigs are going to have to really move and get out on the floor and defend.”
Beyond the matchups inside, Longhorns’ guard Isaiah Taylor will have the marquee matchup with UNI’s Wes Washpun.
Taylor has gotten very familiar with what the Cedar Rapids Washington grad can do in the few days he’s had to watch film, and like his coach with the game plan, isn’t taking the responsibility of guarding Washpun lightly.
“Coach, back at VCU, said he played against him a bunch of times, so he has the blueprints to what they do and the things that they run. We know that he’s a good player and it should be a good match-up,” Taylor said. “I think just especially take away his left hand. We know he’s a good left-hand driver and he can finish above the rim. So just contesting his shots at the rim, making him take a lot of contested two-point shots and giving him nothing easy in transition.”
Whether it’s individual battles or overall, at least on the surface, the Longhorns don’t appear to be taking the Panthers for granted.
They know as well as anyone who UNI has beaten this year, and are ready for what the Panthers will throw at them.
“At this point in the year, anybody can beat anybody, and we know that,” said guard Javon Felix. “Us, as older guys on the team, we’re just trying to make sure that we put everything we have into this one game.
“As far as them beating the good teams that they’ve beaten this year, we noticed that, but you can’t just look at them and overlook them.”
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