UNI Panthers

UNI basketball takeaways: AJ Green's presence opens up opportunities for teammates

Panthers enter final week of regular season with Valley title in sight

Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson speaks to Northern Iowa Panthers guards AJ Green (4) and Trae Berhow (11)
Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson speaks to Northern Iowa Panthers guards AJ Green (4) and Trae Berhow (11) during a game at McLeod Center in Cedar Falls last season. (The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa can win its first regular-season Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball championship since 2010 this week.

A home finale against last-place Evansville and a regular-season finale at Drake stands between the Panthers (23-5, 12-4) and their championship hopes.

Here’s what we learned at UNI coach Ben Jacobson’s weekly press conference:

1. The Green effect

While AJ Green struggled in UNI’s win against Southern Illinois this past Sunday — nine points on 2-of-12 shooting — the sophomore continues to draw double teams and special defenses that consistently open up opportunities for his teammates.

So, despite his struggles against the Salukis, the Panthers’ other four starters picked up Green and scored 53 of the 64 points in Sunday’s win.

Jacobson explained this week how Green’s willingness to accept different roles game-to-game is another element of what’s made his team so successful this season.

“We’ve got a good team because of two things — (AJ’s) ability to get two guys on him, because of what he’s done and what he’s capable of, and him understanding that we’re looking for a great possession,” Jacobson said. “And the second thing is, we’ve got good players.”

2. Formidable phyfe

After missing last season with a rare medical condition (vasovagal syncope), Austin Phyfe has quickly established himself as one of the MVC’s best big men.

Phyfe — who’s averaging 11.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting an incredibly efficient 69 percent from the field — is coming off the most complete game of his career.

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The redshirt sophomore reeled in a career-high 18 rebounds against the Salukis, with a career-high 11 offensive rebounds. The former Waverly-Shell Rock standout leads the MVC in offensive rebounds with 92, 20 more than second-place Koch Bar of Bradley.

“He just seems to be getting better,” Jacobson said. “Every time we play two or three games, it just feels like he’s more confident, he’s in (a) little bit better shape every week to 10 days and what he did (Sunday) was just tremendous.”

3. Scouting Evansville

Last place and winless in MVC play, Evansville (9-20, 0-16) stands between UNI and an undefeated home record.

The Purple Aces also could be motivated to play spoiler as the Panthers could clinch a share of the Valley regular-season championship with a win at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN+).

“One, as we’ve talked about all year, I don’t ever talk about (opponents’) records,” Jacobson said. “So it isn’t going to be any different (this week). We got two games to go and (we’ve) put ourselves in position to win a championship. Whether a team is 10-6, or 8-8, or Evansville at 0-16, it (doesn’t) matter. It’s too late in the year.”

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