CEDAR FALLS — A week ago the opportunity for Northern Iowa men’s basketball to win its remaining six regular-season games and keep its streak of above .500 finishes in the Missouri Valley alive existed. Last Wednesday, that opportunity got legs when the Panthers downed Bradley at McLeod Center, 74-65.
The bigger test of whether or not such a streak would become possible relied on UNI’s ability to win its first true road game of the season. The Panthers took fourth-place Drake to the brink in Des Moines, but came up short for the eighth consecutive time this season on an opponent’s home floor.
With only four games left before the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said Monday that he asked a small group of players a particular question in film study Sunday given the reality of their current situation.
“I asked them if the team in our league (has) been decided as to who’s going to go to the NCAA tournament yet,” Jacobson said. “Asked three or four of them in film (study). The answer of course is no.”
For the first time in 14 years, Northern Iowa (12-14, 4-10) is all but set to finish in the bottom half of the MVC. Unfamiliar territory has and is being embarked on by this roster, and it will take an unprecedented turnaround to realize what’s technically still possible — the NCAA tournament.
“What happens over the last four games and what happens in the Valley tournament is going to be determined by how well we play. That’s what our focus will continue to be,” Jacobson said. “(Sunday) I did bring that up just so they understand there is still a lot that can happen in the next three to four weeks. There’s no question that a lot of things can happen. We have to play better before any of the fun things are going to happen.”
Playing better this week begins against Evansville, which sits two games ahead of UNI in the MVC standings. After making defensive physicality a point of emphasis headed into last week’s games, Jacobson was encouraged after the Bradley win, but left wanting more in the loss to Drake on Saturday. Along with its mixed defensive results slow starts have plagued the Panthers in recent games. Enough so that Jacobson acknowledged the staff having recently discussed the topic.
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“We talked about (the slow starts) some and don’t have any big plans to change the starting lineup by two or three guys and hope that makes a difference,” Jacobson said. “But we’ve talked about everything.”
UNI hosts Evansville (16-11, 6-8) at 7 p.m. Tuesday on NBC Sports Chicago Plus and KCRG 9.2.