UNI using own blueprint for potential Texas upset

Panthers have overcome long odds multiple times this season; unafraid of another tough task

Northern Iowa Panthers guard Wes Washpun (11) shoots over the hand of Iowa State Cyclones forward Jameel McKay (1) during the second half of their NCAA basketball game during the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. Northern Iowa defeated Iowa State 81-79. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa Panthers guard Wes Washpun (11) shoots over the hand of Iowa State Cyclones forward Jameel McKay (1) during the second half of their NCAA basketball game during the Big Four Classic at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. Northern Iowa defeated Iowa State 81-79. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa has seen this movie before.

North Carolina, Iowa State — even Wichita State — presented, on paper, what should have been insurmountable advantages. Size, strength and statistics all flew in the face of what the Panthers eventually were able to do.

UNI found a way to beat each one this season, and did so without fear of the odds. So it makes all the sense in the world that the Panthers would start out their NCAA Tournament with another team and program that dwarfs theirs in terms of national recognition and finances in Texas.

It’s just another chance to show everyone else what they already believe about themselves.

“They’re a pretty traditional powerhouse in a major conference. We’ve stepped up to those teams all year. We wouldn’t have it any other way,” said sophomore guard Wyatt Lohaus. “I think it kind of gives you nothing to lose, and that really helps when you’re playing out there with a chip on your shoulder like that. Personally, I really like being the underdog.”

What goes a long way in that belief among the players and coaching staff that they can compete with anyone despite gaps in conference or economic stature is a lack of caring about the name on the other team’s jersey.

The guys on this roster aren’t sheltered. They know who they beat this year, and they know who they’re about to play. But just like before Nov. 21 or before Dec. 19 — or before March 20, 2010 — headed into Friday’s game against No. 6-seed Texas (20-12) at Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City, No. 11-seed UNI (22-12) can’t use the cache of its opponent’s name as the only fuel. Use it, sure. But don’t rely on it alone.

It only lasts so long.

“Anybody who’s in the tournament is really good like that. They are a big name school, but you’ve just got to go out and play hard and play with confidence, and you never know what’ll happen,” said junior guard Jeremy Morgan. “It gets you going a little bit at the beginning of the game, but once you get started playing, it’s just playing basketball. You’ve just got to go out and compete as hard as you can, regardless of who it is.”

Their coach believes in them to be able to deal with it because this team has dealt with it. Even last year, any examples about dealing with a national stage or high-profile opponents had to be drawn from the past — and usually centered on 2010.

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But this time around, the team Ben Jacobson is taking to Oklahoma has its own experience to draw from.

Whenever UNI faced situations in which it seemed outmatched, either physically or on paper, the Panthers worked around it. In the Missouri Valley Conference championship game, Evansville trotted out the league’s best rebounder in Egidijus Mockevicius, who had a significant size advantage on all of UNI’s frontcourt. In response, Jacobson called on Klint Carlson to play the center position, and used Carlson’s versatility and agility to put Mockevicius on the bench for long stretches.

In the game against the Tar Heels, the Panthers got Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson in foul trouble by getting Bennett Koch away from the basket just a bit, and sent him to work with the baby hook.

UNI will have to deal with Prince Ibeh and potentially Cameron Ridley inside, as well as Isaiah Taylor, Javan Felix and Kerwin Roach on the perimeter as a combination of power and precision, so the Panthers will have to get creative as they did before.

But as much as they did so in those two cases, Jacobson said Texas reminds him most of a third team — one UNI beat twice in a month recently. The Panthers have seen this movie before. They hope the ending will be the same.

“Wichita State would be the closest (to Texas). We know well about the guards at Wichita and Texas’ guard play is really good. The size and length of Wichita’s guys that are playing in between — off guard, small forward and power forward — Texas has got the same,” Jacobson said. “Inside Texas is bigger. That may be the only difference. They’re as big as they come inside. Wichita State is going to press the ball on made shots and free throws. … Wichita State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. That’s the team that’s most similar.

“It’s a great matchup. It’s going to be a great game.”

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

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