CEDAR FALLS — Despite coughing up a 21-point lead against Southern Illinois on Wednesday night, Northern Iowa (8-12, 3-4) coach Ben Jacobson remains upbeat about his team’s prospects with a month and a half of games left before what’s poised to be a wide-open Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
“That is a tough (loss) because we were tremendous in the first half at both ends,” Jacobson said. “Shoot, man, we’re really close, man. We’re getting closer with everything that we’re doing.”
A year removed from Loyola-Chicago’s dominance that ultimately led to a Final Four, run the MVC’s parity is nearly unmatched. The Ramblers and Valparaiso are currently tied for first with 5-2 league records, but Loyola is coming off a mind-boggling 70-35 loss to Missouri State. Drake and Illinois State are tied for second with 4-3 league records, while five of the six remaining teams are knotted at 3-4, furthering the likelihood for a Cinderella story at the conference tournament.
With the MVC poised to once again be a one-bid league, a three day run in St. Louis — no non top-six seed has ever won four games in four days — is ultimately what matters most for Valley teams.
So, coming off back-to-back losses with Evansville (9-11, 3-4) up next at 7 p.m. Saturday (KCRG 9.2), UNI can ill afford another defeat if it’s to keep hopes of a top-six seed alive.
“(Evansville) is able to spread you out, all five guys that start for them are taking 3s,” Jacobson said. “(K.J.) Riley has done a terrific job — he hasn’t taken as many 3s — he’s done a terrific job of getting to the free throw line and putting pressure on your defense that way. They’ve got a lot of versatility to them.”
Evansville is led by first-year head coach Walter McCarty, however, McCarty will not coach the Purple Aces on Saturday as he’ll serve a one-game suspension for public comments criticizing officials after their most recent loss to Drake. McCarty came to Evansville with an impressive resume, having been an assistant on Brad Stevens’ Boston Celtics staff since 2013.
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Evansville assistant and former Iowa coach Todd Lickliter could fill in as the interim coach Saturday.
“The structure of the offense and the execution of the offense, the spacing, there’s certainly an NBA feel to it in terms of what they’re running and how they’re approaching it,” Jacobson said. “And then they defend the 3-point shot at a high rate.”
Working in UNI’s favor ahead of its tilt against the Purple Aces is the return of Shandon Goldman (leg/foot), who’s missed the past six games. Jacobson said Goldman has multiple practices under his belt and is on track to play Saturday.