116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — After what became the most challenging season in program history amid a pandemic, Northern Iowa men’s basketball is eager to turn the page.
The Panthers, who finished 10-15 last season and saw their Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinal against Drake canceled due to COVID-19 protocols, have begun summer workouts as one of just a few teams in the entire country having brought back more than 90 percent of their 2020-21 roster.
That roster stability — which includes the return of guards AJ Green (hip) and Antwan Kimmons (personal COVID-related reasons), who missed all of 2020-21 — has UNI Coach Ben Jacobson anxious to begin the team portion of workouts on Wednesday.
“I like the way the group looks for lack of a better term,” Jacobson said. “Antwan is back and doing great, he’s got that big smile on his face. Then AJ, he gets closer every day, every week, he gets a little bit closer to being all the way (back) to 100 percent.”
With COVID-19 protocols all but gone, regular testing reduced to only those who display symptoms and full crowds set to return to arenas this season, the Panthers coach is feeling plenty of positive energy as his team begins anew.
“I would tell you that the first thing that comes to mind is seeing some of these NBA playoff games right now and the crowds have come back,” Jacobson said. “One of the first where there was a bigger crowd was that (New York) Knicks game against the (Atlanta) Hawks and you can just feel it sitting in your living room watching the TV. It certainly gives you something to look forward to again. I’m excited for our fans to be back in here and (have) that connection with our team. Our guys miss that connection so much.”
Green, who Jacobson says is four to six weeks away from being completely cleared, is participating in individual drills.
His return, along with Kimmons and seniors Trae Berhow and Tywhon Pickford, makes for a crowded backcourt. Returning sophomores Bowen Born and Nate Heise each averaged more than 30 minutes per game in a combined 46 starts last season.
“That part is going to be a big part of what happens with this team, no question,” Jacobson acknowledged. “What you do in June and July gets you ready for what you do in September and October. At that point you’ve set yourself up for what, in a lot of ways, your role is going to be as you get started.”
While much will remain unsettled for some time with rotations and lineups, Jacobson did identify how he sees this group — that’s had its share of success — being able to elevate its collective game and contend once again for an MVC championship.
“Defensively, you’ve got to be a good defensive team and you’ve got to be a great rebounding team,” Jacobson said. “Then, with the addition of AJ and Antwan, with those guys back in the mix (we) have more ball-handling, more passing, more shooting.”
As summer workouts continue and the season draws near, Jacobson and his staff are working to put the finishing touches on their 2021 non-conference schedule.
The 15th-year coach told The Gazette that they’re targeting seven to eight home games that will include the first return game against Richmond as part of their four-game series. Meanwhile, UNI is scheduled to play its multi-team event in Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic against a stacked field and is also on the verge of scheduling a home-and-home series against a top-20 team.
“We’re working to start a home-and-home with one of the better teams in the country,” Jacobson said. “We want to be at home as much as we can here in November (and) December.”