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CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson has built a reputation throughout as an aggressive scheduler.
He routinely finds non-conference games that prepare his Panthers for the grind of their Missouri Valley Conference schedule. Perhaps most importantly, Jacobson’s non-conference scheduling gives his teams the opportunity to build an RPI that could win them an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Jacobson has somehow outdone himself again this season.
Besides marquee matchups against SMU, Arizona or North Carolina State, UNLV, Iowa State and Xavier, the Panthers open their regular season Friday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., against defending national champion North Carolina in front of a national TV audience.
Some may see that slate as non-conference suicide for a mid-major program. Jacobson sees it as opportunity.
“We’re going to play as good of teams as we can,” he said. “So whether we play (North Carolina) in the opener or we play them two weeks in or a month in, as we know, we’re going to play the best teams we can play.
“It just happens that we’ve got as good (of) a schedule, probably the best schedule we’ve had, non-conference schedule that we’ve had in our 12 years here and I think that’s great. As we talk about with our guys, what else would you rather be doing?”
It’d be difficult to find a student-athlete who wouldn’t want the opportunity to play inside the Dean Smith Center against a team with history as rich as North Carolina. That said, last year’s trip to Chapel Hill was not a pleasant one for the Panthers. The Tar Heels took advantage of UNI’s youth and inexperience, drubbing them, 85-42. This season, the Panthers return to the Dean Dome with another young roster, but one with experience.
“As we know, last year we had 11 first-year guys and I think seven or eight of those guys played in games, so that part will be different (this year),” Jacobson said. “You’re just a little bit more comfortable. You’ve got a little bit more confidence. Obviously now they’ve been in a different role in practice and the three games we played last week their role is different than what it was a year ago, so they’re getting more reps and they’re more a part of what’s going on. So those things make a difference and they do help.”
North Carolina returns five players from its national championship team. Three of those five — Luke Maye, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry — were major contributors. The Panthers will not have to deal with Berry, who’s sidelined with a broken hand, but Wyatt Lohaus, Justin Dahl and Hunter Rhodes’ status for Friday night remains up in the air as the trio is dealing with toe, neck and foot injuries, respectively.
Jacobson has a hard time thinking of a team that gets across half-court quicker than the No. 9 Tar Heels.
“They’re still going to play as fast offensively in terms of getting the ball off a defensive (rebound) or out-of-bounds after a make into the frontcourt of an opponent — they do that as good or better than everybody in the country,” Jacobson said. “They want to throw the basketball inside, and even though they graduated the two starters — Hicks and Meeks from last year and Bradley went to the NBA — they still are going to throw the basketball inside. It doesn’t look any different than it did one or two years ago.”
UNI and North Carolina tip off at 6 p.m. Friday on ESPNU.