CEDAR FALLS — For the first time in head coach Ben Jacobson’s tenure, Northern Iowa will begin its quest for a Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship in the first round.
The regular season was quite the ride for Jacobson’s Panthers. One week into December, they were 6-2 with wins over SMU and UNLV and appearing as a bubble team in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology. Then, a seven-game losing streak that included five losses to begin conference play put them in a hole they could not dig out of.
Fast forward to the present and UNI (15-15, 7-11) has won three of its last four, solidified its rotation and received praise from Jacobson for figuring things out.
“Our team is playing well right now,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got enough depth and we’ve got a good enough team to win on Thursday night and that’s the most important thing. Do you have a little momentum? Do you have a good enough team? Do you have some depth if somebody tweaks an ankle or you get in some foul trouble? We’ve got all that stuff.”
While this may be the best the Panthers have felt about themselves since November, facts are facts. And the facts are that no team that’s played on Thursday night of the conference tournament has ever advanced past the semifinals.
“Obviously with something that’s never been done, the facts would tell you that must be difficult if it hasn’t ever been done,” Jacobson said. “But that also has nothing to do with this year. That doesn’t have anything to do with the team we’ve got right now.”
With the proverbial “one game at a time” approach in tow to St. Louis, the Panthers are set for a rubber match with Evansville (17-14, 7-11). UNI lost to the Purple Aces in Evansville, 57-49, and won in Cedar Falls, 47-41, just over two weeks ago. However, the Panthers will be seeing Evansville at full strength this go around. Guards Dru Smith (13.1 ppg) and Duane Gibson (6.1 ppg) have returned from injury. Add in the familiarity between the two head coaches and Jacobson said it’s important to not overthink their game plan.
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“There were times where we thought we’d be able to get (to the tournament) and have a couple things work for us that we hadn’t shown yet,” Jacobson said. “Maybe it works for you, maybe it doesn’t, but at the most that’s four or five possessions out of 70-plus possessions. So what are you going to do the rest of the game? Specific to a couple of (our) changes, obviously now they’ve seen them for a game and the adjustments that we made from game one to game two. So, we’ll have to see how that plays out early in the basketball game.”