CEDAR FALLS — An unprecedented Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball season begins Sunday for Northern Iowa.
To reduce travel and mitigate COVID-19 risk, the MVC implemented a back-to-back format with each team playing eight of its conference foes on consecutive days either on the road or at home. Each team’s ninth conference opponent is its travel partner. UNI’s is Drake. Games against travel partners are traditional home-and-away matchups that don’t occur on back-to-back days.
So, the Panthers' (1-4) MVC opener Sunday against Missouri State (3-0) at 3 p.m., is set to be followed by a 7 p.m. tilt Monday night, both at McLeod Center.
“I’m not as concerned about the back-to-back (games). I don’t know what it’s going to be like playing the same team on back-to-back days,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said. “I’m very curious and have given it as much thought as we can to playing the same opponent back-to-back days. We may have to think a little bit differently to how we approach that.”
After suffering multiple injuries to its roster during non-conference play, UNI will begin its MVC schedule with some reinforcements.
Austin Phyfe (ankle) has returned to practice and is expected to play against the Bears. Meanwhile, senior forward Goanar Mar will be available for the first time this season after the NCAA Council voted on Dec. 16 for a one-time immediate eligibility waiver for transfers.
Jacobson told The Gazette that Mar, a transfer from George Mason, will come off the bench in his UNI debut, and he’s eager to see what his “activity level” will translate into on both ends of the floor.
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“We’re going to count on him to be really active,” Jacobson said. “We think his size and length is going to help us. He’s going to guard (opponents) best player some.”
With Mar available and a pause of basketball activities last week, Jacobson is encouraged by what he’s seen after returning to practice. The pause in basketball activities and resulting cancellation of the remaining three non-conference games provided much needed time to reorganize an offense that’s been inconsistent since AJ Green (hip) was lost for the season late last month.
“The guys are certainly more comfortable,” Jacobson said. “We’ve been able to take a look at some things within Flow. We’ve been able to look at some lineups now with Phyfe back on the practice floor (and) with Goanar in the mix. So, certainly the practices have helped us.”
After a disappointing 16-17 season last year, Missouri State has looked refocused and rejuvenated in its three games. The Bears are coming off an 85-77 win over Little Rock on Monday and have gotten the bulk of their production from returnees.
Sophomore guards Isiaih Mosley and Ja’Monta Black are averaging 19 and 17 points, respectively, while all-MVC senior forward Gage Prim is averaging 18.7 points per game and converting 78 percent of his field goals.
Junior forward Jared Ridder continues to stretch the floor for the Bears, averaging 12.3 points and shooting 36 percent from 3-point range.
“I’ve been impressed with the pace they’re playing at offensively,” Jacobson said. “I’ve been impressed with their ball movement. (They’re) a good team.”
This afternoon’s game will be UNI’s first in 18 days. With that in mind, Jacobson’s focus is going to be on his team’s energy against the Bears.
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“Pace and activity and working to develop more of an edge with this team,” Jacobson said. “That’s going to be so important for this team. We’ve got young guys. We’ve got new guys. But, look, so does everybody else. We’ve got a couple guys hurt. OK, so does everybody else.
“We need to get tougher. We need a better edge to us. That’s all I’m looking for on Sunday.”