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UNI, Drake set for another key game in tight MVC men’s basketball race
Panthers and Bulldogs are both 8-4 in the conference, a game behind the leaders
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s loss at Indiana State on Saturday proved to be another example of how small the margin for error is this season against most Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball opponents.
And in the regular-season championship race.
In its loss against the Sycamores, the Panthers allowed 11 3-pointers, and in its most recent loss before Saturday’s, allowed 14 at Belmont.
Along with its struggles defensively on the perimeter, UNI continues to occasionally show its youth with errors that are more mental than physical.
“We had a couple costly breakdowns, which when you’re playing good teams and you don’t execute exactly the way you want, you’re going to put yourself in a position that you don’t want to be in,” UNI assistant coach P.J. Hogan said. “I think the thing that we learned, and what we’ll continue to learn as a group that is still young, is how important every possession is.”
The Panthers (12-10) are now among three teams tied for third place in the MVC at 8-4. Southern Illinois and Belmont continue to be tied for first despite both teams losing this past weekend.
Behind UNI, Drake and Bradley, Indiana State, Missouri State and Murray State all are 7-5.
With the MVC’s expansion to 12 teams this season, its new conference tournament format looms large over its tight regular-season race. Instead of the league’s bottom four teams having to play their first game on Thursday, seeds 5 through 12 now play on the tournament’s first day.
“Somebody had brought it up in the (coaches) office. Having to play four games in four days, if you have that opportunity, would be different,” Hogan said. “In all honesty it’s something that maybe the staff talks about, but at the end of the day we need to put ourselves in a position to be playing our best basketball come March.
“It’ll be fun. A lot can happen between now and then for everybody.”
Up next for the Panthers is a rivalry game in Des Moines against Drake (17-6, 8-4) at 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN+). The Bulldogs will be without MVC player of the year candidate Tucker DeVries (infection) for the second straight game and Hogan said his absence has changed Drake’s offense.
“How (Drake) played (Sunday) was a little bit different than how they’ve been playing when Tucker is playing,” Hogan said. “Just trying to navigate through how they’re going to attack us. (Roman) Penn was even more aggressive than maybe he had been. (Garrett) Sturtz really upped his game. And (Darnell) Brodie inside was dominant.”
Hogan confirmed Monday that freshman guard Ege Peksari (illness), who missed Saturday’s game against Indiana State, was back at practice. Monday also marked the date of senior forward Austin Phyfe’s checkup appointment at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota regarding his treatment of blood clots.
Phyfe told The Gazette last month his return this season will largely be determined by the results of his late January checkup.