116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — Like every other college basketball team across the country, Northern Iowa is eager for a return to normalcy this season after strict COVID-19 protocols defined last year.
The Panthers, though, have another element that makes their “return to normal” different from their Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball peers.
The return of the 2019-20 conference player of the year, AJ Green.
Green, who played just three games before losing his season to hip surgery, completed a long rehab process and has been fully cleared for months. On Wednesday, MVC peers voted Green the preseason player of the year.
“(AJ) is doing great. He’s 100-percent healthy,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “The rest of his body feels as good as it has felt, certainly since he’s been with us. So, maybe an added benefit or bonus to sitting out last year is that the rest of his body had an opportunity to get healed up and have some time off the court. He’s gotten better every 10 days to two weeks.”
As the season nears, Jacobson and his staff are tasked with working Green and Antwan Kimmons back into an offense that was without the two ball-handlers for much of last season. That reintroduction of the two point guards has provoked some changes in preseason practices.
“We’ve done more scrimmaging. We’ve played more 5-on-5 than we typically would in the fall and early practices, both for AJ and for Antwan,” Jacobson said.
Guards Bowen Born, Nate Heise and Trae Berhow are readjusting after assuming the ball-handling duties last season while the sidelined duo were out.
“With our team right now, we’ve got a group of guys that played together a lot two years ago and we’ve got a group of guys that played together a lot last year,” Jacobson said. “Now, just working to get all of them together and on the same page is one of the challenges we’ll have with our team, especially early on.”
Jacobson says there’s been a lot of positives through early workouts, including seniors Tywhon Pickford and Trae Berhow being able to move back to their natural positions. Green’s presence has also made things easier for the rest of his Panther teammates.
“I like the depth of our team. That’s one of the real positives with what happened last year,” Jacobson said. “The amount of time that some of those guys played and played as young guys.”
UNI was picked third in the MVC’s preseason poll released Wednesday and received six first-place votes. Drake, for the first time in MVC history, was selected as the preseason favorite with 29 first-place votes. Loyola-Chicago received eight first-place votes to land between the Bulldogs and Panthers in second.
Along with Green’s preseason player of the year and first-team all-conference honor, Austin Phyfe was named to the second team.
UNI men’s basketball schedule finalized
UNI recently finalized its 2021-22 schedule with the addition of two Division-III opponents in Wartburg and Dubuque. The Panthers also added Vermont — which reached the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and 2019 — to go along with six other non-conference opponents; Arkansas, St. Bonaventure, Richmond, Jackson State, Marshall and Liberty.
UNI will also play two more non-conference games at the Diamond Head Classic, a multi-team event, at the end of December. The field includes Wyoming, Stanford, BYU, South Florida, Vanderbilt and Hawaii.
MVC men’s basketball preseason poll
1. Drake (29 1st-place votes)
2. Loyola (8)
3. UNI (6)
4. Missouri State
5. Southern Illinois
9. Indiana State
10. Illinois State