CEDAR FALLS — After an 80-47 win over Dubuque on Sunday, Northern Iowa has two games remaining in its nonconference men’s basketball schedule.
Iowa State and Xavier — No. 38 and No. 18, respectively in the latest RPI rankings, are a positive as the Panthers build an NCAA tournament resume.
With a five-day layoff before their Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game against the Cyclones at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, here are three things to know about the Panthers:
1. Getting noticed
It most always takes time and a certain number of losses for preseason Power 5 favorites to drop from the top 25. It appears we’re getting near that area of the calendar. Now 7-2 overall with three wins over top-100 RPI teams, the Panthers are beginning to draw recognition from voters.
That’s something head coach Ben Jacobson calls “great.”
“I talked to our guys maybe a week or 10 days ago about a couple of different things, (the rankings) being one of them,” Jacobson said Monday. “I said, if you want to be ranked you have to play good. We’ve got (assistant coach) (Erik) Crawford, we’ve got (film assistant) Jake Koch, we’ve got (video coordinator) John Little, we’ve got those guys in the locker room that have been on teams that have been ranked. I asked those guys, did it help you win any games? They said no, it doesn’t help you win any games. I said, but how did it make you feel? Being ranked is a big deal. I’m happy to hear that and I’m happy for our guys. The things we’ve asked — defend and rebound — we’ve got work to do still but they’re doing those two things.”
2. Lohaus’ return, Phyfe’s growth
Despite utilizing what was basically a six-man rotation through its first seven games, UNI has benefited in its last two tilts from the return of Wyatt Lohaus and the continual growth of true freshman Austin Phyfe.
Jacobson’s rotation now is consistently running eight to nine players deep, and while both Lohaus and Phyfe are contributing now, Lohaus’ experience as a junior has him ahead of Phyfe.
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“I thought Wyatt was more comfortable (Sunday) than he was in the first (game), which is to be expected,” Jacobson said. “He has worked so hard on his conditioning, he’s worked so hard on that jump shot. He’s got a lot of confidence in his ability to score the basketball. The more we’re able to get him into practices with that top group, and the more times he plays, I don’t think it’s going to take very long.”
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Phyfe “hasn’t had many game minutes,” Jacobson said. “Those are the minutes that make all the difference. He’s got a great opportunity at practice to learn and get better and play against experienced players and good players. It’s still not like being on the game floor. So for him to get some extended minutes (Sunday) was a real positive for him.”
3. In-state battles
Saturday’s game against Iowa State will mark the sixth consecutive year the Panthers have trekked to Des Moines for a shot at one of their two in-state rivals. Jacobson’s “preference” still is the way things used to be.
“I was completely against (the Hy-Vee Classic) when it happened,” Jacobson said. “I still don’t prefer it. My preference is what we used to have. It will always be that. But the event itself has gotten so much better. The last either four or five years it’s basically been sold out. That part of it was missing a little bit the first year or two as they were getting things going, getting things organized.
“As long as we’re able to sell that thing out or get close to that so that atmosphere is really good, it’s something that’s important. I think it’s important for all four of us. I know it’s important to the state and the young kids that are playing basketball in this state.”