CEDAR FALLS — Better late than never. The cliche is currently a prevailing thought for the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team.
UNI could win its third game in its last four tries Saturday but still be a sure thing for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament’s dreaded Thursday night first-round games.
Knowing for some time that a regular-season conference championship was out of the realm of possibilities, it’s been about getting as many things as possible trending in the right direction for UNI (14-15, 6-11) over the past month.
“I think the rest of the guys — maybe with the exception of Luke (McDonnell) and Austin (Phyfe) — everyone else has got a pretty good idea of what to expect every night and it’s been that way for a couple weeks and that’s important,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “The year has been a little bit different and that usually happens a long time ago. Look at all of our games (and) we have been in every single game, so I give our guys a lot of credit for — you know our rotations have been kind of all over the place and you don’t like it to be that way — (but) in an effort to try to put our best foot forward, that’s the way it’s been.”
Making more of the hard plays, along with stabilization within the rotation, has led to better basketball for the Panthers in February. Jacobson credits the players for what he’s seen as a willingness and ability to figure things out in-game. Should its recent success equal a win Saturday against Missouri State (17-13, 7-10) it will mark the first above-.500 month for UNI since November.
Missouri State beat UNI 62-55 on Jan. 4.
“We’ve got to be able to defend in transition. They’ve hurt us getting it off the backboards and (Alize) Johnson just being able to get it off the backboard and take off in a hurry and he’s either scored it by driving it past us or through us,” Jacobson said. “And then we got to rebound. At their place, they just hammered us on the boards.”
McCloud not expected against Missouri State
Starting point guard Juwan McCloud remains out with a back injury. After a 47-41 win against Evansville on Feb. 13, Jacobson was optimistic about McCloud’s return, but a re-aggravation of the injury pushed back the sophomore’s return to the lineup.
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“(Juwan McCloud) worked out Monday night at Valpo,” Jacobson said. “That was the only time that he has worked out since we took him off the court. He did not practice (Thursday). It flared up a little bit after his workout and we’re just going to have to wait and see. I don’t anticipate that he’ll play (Saturday).”
4 to be honored on Senior Day
Bennett Koch — who eclipsed the 1,000-point career mark in Tuesday’s win over Valparaiso — along with fellow seniors Klint Carlson, Ted Friedman and Hunter Rhodes will be recognized prior to Saturday’s game.
“We haven’t been in (a) position in league play that we expected to be in and it hit us fast with that 0-5 start,” Jacobson said. “Everything was going to have to go perfect to get into the top four. It never quite got there, but what I’ve been so impressed with the four seniors and their leadership is our preparation on a daily basis has never changed. There was plenty of opportunity this year for (preparation) to be affected or for that to change and it never did. If anything, it got stronger and got better.”