CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s 68-66 loss at Southern Illinois on Jan. 22 may have been surprising, but it can’t be considered shocking.
The Salukis (15-10, 9-3) are 11-1 at Banterra Center this season and the last two times UNI (21-3, 10-2) won 30-plus games (2009-10 and 2014-15) both teams had at least two road conference losses.
What was a shock was the Panthers’ 76-70 loss to Illinois State to open Missouri Valley Conference play on Dec. 31.
That loss lingers as a black eye on UNI’s NCAA tournament at-large resume, and the Redbirds (8-16, 3-9) won’t have many more motivating games to play than Wednesday’s until the MVC tournament.
Here’s what we learned from Panthers Coach Ben Jacobson ahead of a rematch with the Redbirds:
1. AJ green has a green light
In his second 30-point performance of the season this past Saturday, AJ Green put on another display of exceptional shot-making.
And while leaning jump shots, fadeaways, turnarounds, step-backs and many more of the difficult shots Green routinely takes have never been a part of Jacobson’s teachings, the 14th-year head coach made it unmistakably clear just how green Green’s green light is.
“(AJ) can shoot it whenever, wherever, however,” Jacobson said. “I don’t mean to kid about that. I say that because his teammates are 100-percent OK with him shooting it whenever, however, wherever. That’s the most important thing. He’s earned their trust.”
2. Green is closing in on a milestone
With just 58 games played in his career, Green is only 12 points away from 1,000.
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The former 4-star recruit has not only lived up to his hype, he won the Valley’s freshman of the year award last season and has successfully transitioned from hometown high school star to hometown college star.
“We all felt like he was going to step in immediately and not just play as a freshman, but have an impact that most freshmen don’t have,” Jacobson said. “That’s a lot in terms of expectations. He has done a remarkable job when I think of the year-and-a-half.”
3. Scouting Illinois State
Dan Muller has made a number of adjustments with his Redbirds since their win over the Panthers. What hasn’t changed is Illinois State’s ability to play in transition, especially off turnovers.
UNI has been most vulnerable this season when teams convert turnovers into transition buckets.
“They made some things hard on us (last game), but they also got us to turn the ball over,” Jacobson said. “Then they got out into the open-floor with live-ball turnovers and that created offense for them and really got them going.”