SPORTS

UNI still working toward an identity

Panthers want it to be defense and rebounding; feel they're closer to it now

Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson gives instructions to his players during the second half of their men’s basketball game against the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Northern Iowa won 70-60. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson gives instructions to his players during the second half of their men’s basketball game against the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Northern Iowa won 70-60. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — In the 35 days since Northern Iowa beat North Texas for a fifth straight win, the Panthers have played nine games — just one at home — and are 4-5 in that stretch.

The Ben Jacobson-led group has alternated wins and losses during that time, and hasn’t looked like the same team on back to back nights.

It’s a hard thing to swallow for a group that has been used to consistency in the past. Leaning on an identity was a crucial part of last year’s magical run, as well as 2010’s run. Jacobson wants it to be his old friends defense and rebounding. Until those things get to a place where UNI knows what to expect from them, an identity will be somewhere in the ether.

“We’re certainly not there yet. We felt more like a team with an identity against Bradley, and a lot of that had to do with our defense,” Jacobson said. “Our rotations were good, and they were late in the shot clock. Our blockouts were good. At Southern (Illinois), there was still some of that. There were some good defensive possessions and really good blockouts.

“More physical and making some plays that get you farther down that road to being able to have that feeling when you walk into a game — home or away — when you know exactly what’s going to happen on most possessions. It felt like we’re closer the last two games.”

Jacobson reiterated at his weekly press luncheon on Monday that the Panthers (9-6, 1-1 Missouri Valley Conference) aren’t far off.

They’ve shown that when they’re on, the ceiling is high — with those two big wins against North Carolina and Iowa State. But they’ve also shown the floor can be low — with losses to Colorado State and Hawaii in which UNI looked nothing like the team they believe they can be.

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In Saturday’s loss to the Salukis, Jacobson actually was very satisfied with the overall performance on the glass and in defending Southern Illinois. But Anthony Beane’s 32 points — only two other Salukis were in double figures: Tyler Smithpeters with 11 and Mike Rodriguez with 10 — were the difference. Some nights quick closeouts and good on-ball defending aren’t enough when a shooter is making tough shots, and Saturday was it.

Jacobson said he feels like if his team can give that kind of effort — especially on the glass — nightly, they’ll find the consistency they seek.

“We were closer with the game at Southern,” Jacobson said. “One of the numbers we do keep — and you don’t hear me talk about numbers too often; I’m not too big into shooting percentage or those kinds of numbers — but one of them we do keep is our defensive rebounding percentage. Against Southern it was 83-point-something. Seventy-three to 75 is good. We were getting eight to eight and a half of their misses; we just didn’t get Beane to miss enough.

“Our offense was good. We didn’t convert all the time when we were open, but our offense was pretty good. Beane just had a night. … Our guys felt like the way we defended and rebounded, you’d like to get that one on the road, so there’s disappointment in the result, but not discouraging. I felt like, in back-to-back games now, our defense and rebounding were better.”

He didn’t use it as an excuse, but Jacobson acknowledged being on the road has had an effect on UNI being delayed in figuring out exactly who they are.

When there’s time to sit and reflect and really work through certain issues, they can be corrected much quicker.

“When you’re gone, playing the actual game itself is hard on the road, but when you’re traveling in between them, it takes away from some of your practice time,” Jacobson said. “When we’re at home, they’re in the gym themselves for a half-hour, 45 minutes; they’re in the gym with a coach, they’re in the weight room and doing all those things on a daily basis.

“The amount of traveling we did in December and up to now changes that routine. That slows you down a little bit from your development, and it also changes your practice time. It has an effect on your consistency, for sure.”

Jacobson and Co. believe it’s there, the Panthers just haven’t harnessed it yet.

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With the upcoming slate being at Missouri State (4-10, 0-2), home against Drake (5-9, 0-2), at Indiana State (7-7, 1-1) and home against Loyola (7-7, 0-2), there are plenty of opportunities to find themselves and get in a routine that helps develop and enhance what they want to be.

Jacobson isn’t going to stray from what he hopes it will be — because he never has.

“Defense and rebounding are such a big part of it, because as we know, you’ve got more control over those two things. That’s why we work on it and spend the time at it,” Jacobson said. “Offensively, it feels like we’ve had a pretty good idea how we’re going to do things for a while this year, with this team. Now we’ll see if we can put a third game together.

“Again, the result wasn’t what we wanted against Southern, but there was defense and rebounding we liked. I’m hoping we can get a third game with defense and rebounding that fits what we want to be.”

UNI goes to Missouri State on Wednesday. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at JQH Arena in Springfield, Mo.

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

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