CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson played coy this week when asked for his thoughts on his team being one game out of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“We are?” Jacobson said with a grin.
The 13th-year head coach went on to acknowledge the Panthers’ place in the MVC standings and explained how much he enjoys games with stakes such as Wednesday’s 7 p.m. tip against Loyola-Chicago.
“You gotta love these games,” Jacobson said. “I just think it’s great. We’ve got senior day so for Miles (Wentzien) and Wyatt (Lohaus), for their last game on our home floor to be the game that it’s going to be now when we are one game out of first and we’ve got a terrific team coming in here, I do, I think it’s great.”
While UNI (14-15, 9-7) needs plenty of help from Drake, Loyola, and Missouri State — the three teams tied for first — it also must win at home Wednesday against the Ramblers (17-12, 10-6).
The Panthers came up short in their first go-around with the Ramblers, 61-60. Jacobson pointed out how important it is to make things difficult for Loyola center Cameron Krutwig, who led the Ramblers past UNI in the first game’s final five minutes.
Jacobson also noted how UNI forward Luke McDonnell played one of his best defensive games in Saturday’s win over Valparaiso.
“I thought Luke was two things,” Jacobson said. “I thought he was much more active. I thought he got away from (Derrik) Smits a few times, got off his body. He knows and we know he’s not going to win the battle of banging into each other all night.
“I think he’s learned a lot as he’s gone through the conference games.”
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Marques Townes, a contender for the MVC’s Player of the Year award, has displayed an ability to take over games and Jacobson has taken notice of the senior’s improvements.
“Where (Townes) deserves a ton of credit, just from the outside looking in, is what he’s done in terms of improving his jump shot,” Jacobson said. “A year ago, you could pretty much start and stop (with dribble penetration). Now you can’t. You can’t just go under all the ball screens and let him step back and shoot (it).”
Besides its success on the scoreboard over the past two weeks, Jacobson explained how the Panthers’ improvement during their four-game winning streak can be evaluated clearly on game film.
“In the Drake (loss) we had 34 clips we needed to work out and do better and do different,” Jacobson said. “In the first 20 minutes of the Valpo (film) I kept finding myself highlighting clips of what we did right. Our defense, that was as good as we’ve been for 20 minutes, for a half. And then we finished well again. We scored points on eight of our last 10 possessions.”