CEDAR FALLS — With hardly any time to catch its breath during the non-conference schedule, Northern Iowa will aim to muster up another high-level performance Friday when No. 8 Xavier visits the McLeod Center (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
The Panthers have so far lived to tell about their rigorous out-of-conference schedule. Sitting at 8-3 overall with the nation’s 12th most difficult schedule, head coach Ben Jacobson has accomplished what he annually sets out to do — build an NCAA tournament caliber resume.
Friday’s game presents the Panthers their final opportunity before Missouri Valley Conference play to put another top-rated victory on that resume. However, after a lackluster performance — particularly in the second half — in a loss to Iowa State last Saturday, the Panthers are refocusing on doing the things well that have put them in position to win.
“I talked about free throw differential in the Iowa State game, (Xavier is) a great example of that,” UNI associate head coach Kyle Green said. “They’re one of those teams that has made more free throws than their opponents have attempted. That’s a telling stat. Certainly an area of the game where we’re going to have to be successful in order to win on Friday.”
In the second half of their loss to Iowa State, the Panthers had fewer free throw attempts than the Cyclones had makes. That’s something that, up until that point, had been unfamiliar territory for this UNI team.
The other element that’s been a big part of UNI’s early success was Bennett Koch’s production — highlighted by a career-best 30-point performance in a home win over UNLV in late November. In the two games since UNLV (excluding Division III opponent Dubuque), Koch has scored seven total points in a win over Texas-Arlington and the aforementioned loss to Iowa State.
“Certainly that’s our responsibility as coaches, to find ways to allow those guys to be successful, and Bennett in particular,” Green said. “We (need to) get him the ball in areas where he can get touches and be creative and score the way we need him to score. We’ve got some different options we can do with that, (but) we’ve got to do a better job executing those things. Certainly I think we’ll see (Bennett get doubled) on Friday. We have to do a great job playing off that and I know we will.”
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Should the Panthers be able to defend the Musketeers without fouling — and get the production they desire from Koch — they’ll still have a steep hill to climb. Last season, these two teams matched up twice — once at the Puerto Rico Tipoff and the other as part of the first of the current home-and-home agreement — and UNI lost both games by a combined 30 points.
“It’s like a heavyweight fight,” Green said. “When you come out and the bell rings and one guy comes out and smacks you, they make the first punch, how do you counterpunch? We’re ready for that punch now. The guys know what to expect. I think we’ll counterpunch better than we did last time.”
Xavier (11-1) enters the matchup with notable wins over Baylor and Cincinnati. It will also be at full strength against the Panthers with starters J.P. Macura (blurred vision) and Kaiser Gates (dizziness) set to return to the lineup.
“They’re a very physical team,” Green said. “They do a great job executing on both ends of the floor. They have a plus-18 point differential between how many points a game they’re scoring and how many they’re giving up. Which is really high. And that’s against good competition. They’ve played some good teams. We can draw on things that happened last year to help us get ready for this one.”