UNI has one lofty goal: the Final Four

Panthers believe program has foundation, talent, experience enough to make a run

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CEDAR FALLS — It was one of the last things Matt Bohannon said when he made an address to the few hundred Northern Iowa basketball fans who made their way to Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls for Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show.

He’d drawn the short straw of the seniors to make a quick speech, but what he had to say resonated throughout the room and on social media.

Two big, lofty words to end a brief thought: “We want to go to the Final Four.”

“We’re going to take what we get. We don’t care what we get,” Bohannon said just before UNI drew Texas in Oklahoma City. “We believe. We’re going to Houston. We’re going.”

Bohannon isn’t shy about how he feels about his team and teammates, nor what he thinks this team is capable of. Before going to Des Moines and beating Iowa State in December, Bohannon let loose how he felt about the state of Iowa overlooking the Panthers. He said at the time, “We don’t care about what the media says, that they’re No. 2 and they have that number next to their name. We feel just as confident as they do. … We want to go out and prove how good we are.”

His brash confidence extended into Sunday, when he was asked to clarify the Final Four comment, and the story behind Coach Ben Jacobson being the one to put the idea in his head.

The Linn-Mar grad gave a wide smile and laugh before his answer, just as he did when he was asked if UNI was the best team in the state in December.

“It was my first year when I red-shirted. Coach (Jacobson) put it on the board. He put a big picture of the UNI team that made it to the Sweet 16 and said, ‘We were two games away from the Final Four,’” Bohannon said. “We went through our first two years and we didn’t do too well. We didn’t make the tournament. But to be able to do what we did last year, all three of us (seniors) had conversations saying that we should’ve beat Louisville, we just had an off day. If we beat them, we go to the Sweet 16 and you just never know what could happen.

“I know the Final Four and national championship are our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to get to Houston. As seniors, we just want to play basketball as long as we can.”

His teammates couldn’t help but smile at the notion, either, and both Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson gave nods of agreement with Bohannon’s final thought on the matter.

Some of the younger players may not have had the same exact discussion with Jacobson as Bohannon or the other seniors, but they’re well aware of the thought process.

Having seniors in the locker room and a coach that believe it’s possible is a feeling that wears off by osmosis as much as conversation.

“(Coach) hasn’t talked to me about it much, but Bo likes to talk about it. I’ve been around it. It’s great,” said sophomore forward Klint Carlson. “We have to set goals. If that’s our goal, we have to actually speak it out loud and be about it. Obviously we want to make it to the Final Four, so we’ll do everything we can to get there.

“We’ve shown all year we’re not afraid to play anybody. We can play with anybody and we want to show that.”

Yes, UNI has only ever been as far as the Sweet 16 — making it there by way of some upset you’ve probably never heard of or seen clips of on repeat — so a declaration of a Final Four run not only is unexpected, it’s unprecedented.

But since that magical 2010 season and the upset of Kansas, Jacobson has felt much more comfortable broaching the subject. Seeing it done once should be enough.

“I’ve talked about that since we went to the Sweet 16. I don’t talk about it very often, but I talk about it with our guys from time to time. We’ve got a lot of very good things going with our program — big picture, generally speaking. There’s so many things that are different than they were five years ago. All of those things — we work on those things to help us move forward so we’ve got an opportunity to play another weekend and another weekend. That’s what this is all about from a competitive standpoint.

“I enjoy having those conversations with our guys, and I’m glad they’re listening. I’m glad it sticks with them.”

Expectations can be a burden for some teams and some programs. Jacobson and Co. don’t at all believe that’s the case in Cedar Falls.

In the last 10 years, George Mason and Butler proved to the nation what a mid-major can do if the stars align and a team plays to its complete potential. With what the Panthers have done this season, how they’re playing now and the lessons the coaching staff has learned in his decade at the helm, Jacobson’s sentiment has moved into two key thoughts:

Why not UNI? Why not now?

“I enjoy the expectations. I enjoy that our players feel that it’s realistic for us to play for a long time in the NCAA Tournament,” Jacobson said. “We’ve been here long enough. All of our teams should feel that way. Some years we’re going to be younger and realistically speaking not have as good of a chance because we don’t have a bunch of older guys. Sure, that’ll be part of it, there’s no doubt.

“But we’ve got a solid foundation. Our guys, from the recruiting process on through, have an expectation of competing for championships and playing as long as we can in the NCAA Tournament.”

No. 11-seed UNI (22-12) plays No. 6-seed Texas at approximately 8:45 p.m. on Friday at Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City. The game can be seen on TBS.

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

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