116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa men’s basketball knew it had a difficult non-conference schedule.
Despite that schedule, though, no one — fans, prognosticators, players or coaches — anticipated a 2-5 start to its season.
A number of things have contributed to the Panthers’ poor start. However, what’s most consistently shown up are defensive mistakes.
The most recent example came in a 60-52 loss at home to Richmond last Sunday. UNI struggled from 3-point range, shooting just 14 percent (3-22). Coach Ben Jacobson said this week that even with the shooting struggles it was a winnable game with better defensive execution.
“We had some possessions that were really good, but over the course of the 40 minutes we made too many mistakes, again, at the defensive end of the floor,” he said.
Jacobson pointed out that, despite his team’s miscues, it held the Spiders below 1.0 point per possession (0.92) — a metric he describes has been tied to a 92-percent win rate during his tenure at UNI. He also complimented improvements with transition defense after conference foe Bradley exploited the Panthers with its fast-break offense in a 71-69 loss to the Braves Dec. 1.
So, while improvements are being made, Jacobson said his team’s activity level on defense hasn’t been good enough through seven games.
“When I say activity level — jumping to the basketball, being in the right position to rotate if the ball gets driven,” Jacobson said. “Maybe an overly simplistic way to put it is, you need to be where you’re supposed to be before you’re needed and you need to always be thinking about helping a teammate.”
Asked if his patience is running thin enough to make considerable changes soon, the 16th-year coach seemed to hint practices during a current eight-day gap between games could be intense.
“Well, we’ve got until the 14th, so we have some opportunities to spend some time together,” Jacobson said with an ominous grin and tone.
Along with its defensive issues, UNI’s rotation and lineup combinations have yet to solidify themselves. Having played only seven games, injuries to Bowen Born and Noah Carter and illness with Austin Phyfe (long COVID) and Trae Berhow has been enough to keep the rotation in flux.
“In terms of sorting that rotation out, we’re really not where any of us would like to be,” Jacobson said. “Maybe we’ll be in a little better spot on the 14th (against Jackson State).
“Austin’s situation will have something to do with that. Our practices between now and then will have something to do with that. But, certainly, not where you feel like you would be seven games into the season in terms of your rotation.”
Even with a 2-5 record and the challenges confronting his team, Jacobson and his players have continued to display confidence.
Forward Cole Henry — who made his first career start against Richmond in place of Phyfe — said he still believes.
“Adversity really does make a man out of all of us. We’ve got to just handle this,” Henry said. “We’ve got nine days now to get better (and) lots of practices. I think we’ve got so much more potential than we’re showing. Our team chemistry is phenomenal. If we clean up some of those little mistakes this can get really fun, man.”
UNI hosts Jackson State (2-6) at 7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN3).