CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s annual attempt to build an NCAA tournament resume with its nonconference schedule concluded with a loss to then-No. 8 Xavier last Friday.
The Panthers escaped their rigorous nonconference season, rated fourth in strength, with an 8-4 record and an RPI of 38.
Teams with better RPIs have been left out of the NCAA tournament in years past. Illinois State was snubbed last season with a 27-6 record and 33 RPI, but this year’s Missouri Valley Conference had a much more successful nonconference season.
For the second time in the league’s 111-year history, two 10-win teams opened league play against one another when Missouri State hosted Loyola Dec. 22. Four teams — Missouri State, Loyola, Evansville and Bradley — ended their nonconference schedules with 10 wins. Eight of the league’s 10 teams enter league play with winning records, and three of those eight teams — UNI, Illinois State and Missouri State — have RPIs inside the top 100.
“At the end of the day, because scheduling is so difficult, not everybody is going to be able to put together the kind of schedule that allows you to go into conference play where you’ve got a really good strength of schedule,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said. “So we’ve got a handful of those where teams have been able to play against what is now a really good schedule, but then the difference is that there’s a lot of teams that won games in November and December. That allows the numbers to at least be in a better spot, so when you start playing each other you’ve got some games against top-100 teams. So we’re going to have some of that this year and we really didn’t have that last year.”
UNI opens conference play Thursday against Southern Illinois. Picked to finish fifth in the league’s preseason poll, the Salukis are 8-5 but have lost their last four meetings against the Panthers.
“They have started four guards and a new junior college (transfer) at the center who’s really been a good addition for them, a guy named Kavion Pippen (12.1 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game),” Jacobson said. “He’s got the ability to score the basketball for them so that it gives them somebody they can throw it to on the block. Then they surrounded him with four guards and those guys have got experience.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“Then, they can change their lineup a little bit. They can go bigger. Offensively they’ve done a really good job stretching the floor and using the ball-screen. There’s some challenges no matter which way they use their lineup.”
Jacobson likely will use a four-guard lineup of his own at times against the Salukis’ undersized lineup. Forwards Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson are the focal points of UNI’s offense and their amount of touches will not change, according to Jacobson, despite SIU’s four-guard lineup.
“Obviously Klint (Carlson) and Bennett (Koch) are the guys that are leading our team,” Jacobson said. “Those two guys are the ones that are going to touch the ball a lot offensively. We’ve got to find a way, I think, to be able to spread the floor like we did against Xavier and use the ball-screen and have better movement. Then we also have a good combination of touches inside with Bennett and with Klint so that we can test them on that block if they’re going to play their smaller lineup.”