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CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s 2022 Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament experience as the top seed comes with some obstacles.
The first is this: how to prepare for Friday’s noon quarterfinal (TV: Bally Sports Midwest) at Enterprise Center in St. Louis without knowing whether it will play Indiana State or Illinois State until late Thursday night.
“Some years we have worked on both teams. Some of the years we have just worked on our stuff and waited until after that Thursday game was over and then had all the film ready and gone in and done it that way,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “As a coach I don’t like either one. There’s really no other options. There’s not a third way to do it. It’s a big challenge. The best thing that we can do is practice hard and practice well.”
When it comes to working on their own stuff, the Panthers will continue to focus on defense.
Jacobson routinely mentions points per possession allowed when evaluating his team’s defense, and in its past five games, that number has been too high.
“1.0 is the number and it’s been significantly higher than that here in the last couple of basketball games. We haven’t quite found that rhythm again defensively (since beating Southern Illinois 53-44 on Feb. 9) and we need to,” Jacobson said. “Our practices have been good, but we’ve got to find another level in terms of limiting easy shots and then finishing possessions.”
Offensively, UNI enters the MVC tournament as one of the country’s hottest teams, having scored 88 or more points in its last three wins — the first time that total has been reached or eclipsed in three straight in Jacobson’s 15 years as head coach.
This season marked the fourth since UNI installed its Flow offense after Seth Tuttle’s arrival as a graduate assistant in 2019. Now, in his first season as a full-time assistant, the growth of Tuttle’s working relationship with Jacobson and the rest of the staff — along with a healthy roster — has helped the Panthers scheme reach its potential at an opportune time.
“It’s really the first time for Seth where he’s had that much responsibility, and we sit and talk and have great conversations, and when you get into the game and things aren’t going quite right, I may want to do something different — so just that whole dynamic has been a really good experience for us as a staff,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson acknowledged the environment of postseason basketball is different. The Panthers know the feeling all too well, having become the MVC’s first No. 1 seed to lose in the quarterfinals when it was surprised by Drake, 77-56, in the 2020 tournament.
“When the game is being played that you win and you get to play again, it’s just different,” Jacobson said. “That’s why sometimes the games feel that way, because everyone knows what’s at stake. And I think it’s great.”
Jacobson joined three of his players on Thursday in receiving postseason recognition. For the fifth time in his UNI career — an MVC record — he was voted the league’s coach of the year.
All four of UNI’s regular-season MVC championships have come under Jacobson’s guidance and his 319 career wins is fourth most all-time among MVC coaches.