ST. LOUIS — It’s impossible to know where Northern Iowa would be without sophomore center Austin Phyfe.
After missing last season with a rare medical condition (vasovagal syncope) the Waverly native exceeded expectations in his return to the hardwood this season, receiving a Missouri Valley Conference first-team selection and helping lead UNI to a regular-season conference championship for the first time in a decade.
“(Austin) just seems to be getting better. Every time we play two or three games it just feels like he’s more confident (and) he’s in a little bit better shape,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “That indicates a few things; how hard he’s working, how much fun he’s having, and for us, I’ve talked about this a lot with Austin, that’s had a real impact on our team this year. He loves being around his teammates.”
A look at Phyfe’s numbers show high-level efficiency and rebounding, making it clear how he became such a critical component for this UNI (25-5, 14-4) team.
His 69-percent mark from the field led the MVC, as did his 98 offensive rebounds, 19 better than second-place Koch Bar of Bradley.
Phyfe’s ability to create those extra possessions on the offensive glass has likely turned a would-be loss or two into a win. It’s also caught the attention of MVC coaches.
“He’s terrific,” Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser said. “First-team all-league player in this league on a championship team. It goes to (UNI’s) staff about development (and Phyfe’s) improvement. His core is really strong. He gets in there and he checks you off on the offensive end and you’re not moving him. He gets leverage in there on the offensive rebound and he’s really good. He’s an elite passer like (Cameron) Krutwig is and he plays great in their system.”
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With UNI having installed a new offense last season there was a lot of attention on how well the redshirt sophomore would fit in the scheme that relies on sound decision-making from Phyfe’s position.
“Being a 5-man is usually just kind of hanging out (and) setting some screens, getting a post touch here and there, Phyfe said. “But being able to be (on the perimeter) and handle the ball a little bit and be active, be able to get a few more assists than I usually would, it’s a lot of fun.”
A couple important factors in helping Phyfe get comfortable in the offense has been tutelage from fifth-year senior Luke McDonnell. Another has been going against former UNI All-American Seth Tuttle, who’s now the Panthers’ graduate manager.
Tuttle’s role in implementing the Panthers’ new offense last season has been well-documented. What hasn’t gotten as much attention is the impact he’s had on Phyfe’s post moves and confidence within the European-style offense he brought back to Cedar Falls after his professional career.
“If I do a workout with him (he’s) tough to play against, but it’s something that is helping me a great amount,” Phyfe said. “Just having him there, coaching me, leading me and encouraging me has been huge to my success and the team’s success.”
Phyfe and the top-seeded Panthers open MVC tournament play Friday at noon at Enterprise Center in St. Louis against No. 8-seed Drake (18-13, 8-10) at noon (CBSSN).