CEDAR FALLS — After getting its first Missouri Valley Conference win Saturday night, Northern Iowa is hoping it can replicate some of last season’s success that came after dropping its first five conference games.
If UNI is going to replicate that five-game winning streak and 9-1 stretch from a season ago, it will be with two true freshmen in the starting lineup. Austin Phyfe was inserted into the starting lineup Saturday night against Valparaiso and the Waverly native promptly went for a career-high 20 points in his first start. UNI head coach Ben Jacobson had a simple answer when asked if Saturday’s lineup would be the same for Drake on Tuesday.
“Yes,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson reiterated he and his staff were searching for a different look to begin games and felt Phyfe could be the catalyst. The results actually exceeded expectations, but Jacobson doesn’t anticipate Phyfe putting up the 20-point, eight-rebound performance he did in his starting debut.
“Austin had a tremendous game,” Jacobson said. “For Austin, he plays really hard, plays with a lot of energy, a lot of passion for the game. (I) did not anticipate that he would put up those kind of numbers, but we do feel like he’s going to be a tremendous player as he goes through his career.”
With, as Jacobson puts it, a new bounce in its step, UNI will have to defeat the Missouri Valley’s first-place team to get its second consecutive win. Drake (11-8, 5-1) visits McLeod Center Tuesday night and brings the conference’s top-rated offense (77.5 points per game) to town. Meanwhile, the Panthers boast the MVC’s top scoring defense (62.1 points per game).
“They defend you hard,” Jacobson said. “They really test you in transition. They’re able to move the ball up the floor in a hurry and with four guards on the floor they can get you in a lot of different ways in transition. Then, in the quarter-court they’re really sharp with what they run. They get some layups at the rim. They run a bunch of good counters that free up — whether it be (Reed) Timmer or (Graham) Woodward or whomever it might be — but they are really, really sharp at that offensive end of the floor. They’re playing great.”
While UNI’s starting lineup against Drake could feature two true freshmen and two sophomores, the Bulldogs have had the benefit of being the Valley’s — and one of college basketball’s — oldest teams. By comparison, Drake’s lineup has 289 combined starts while UNI’s has 131. That experience gap is something Jacobson feels has been a big part of the Bulldogs’ success.
Timmer averages 18.2 points per game.
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“Some of those guys have been good players in the league for a couple years now,” Jacobson said. “Of course Reed Timmer is the one that has been a part of that regular rotation for the longest, and he’s been one of the better players in the league for a couple years now. With five senior guards, with three guys in that junior class, those guys have played league games.
“They’ve been around and they’re good players.”