CEDAR FALLS — After five straight losses against Division-I opponents, Northern Iowa men’s basketball will look to get back in the win column Saturday night against North Dakota.
Here are three keys for a UNI win against the Fighting Hawks (1 p.m., ESPN+):
1. Trust the prep
As the Panthers are mired in a losing streak, they’re maintaining their hope and focus as a result of the extra work each player puts in on a regular basis, according to coach Ben Jacobson.
“I think the guys have handled (offensive struggles) better than a lot of the teams we’ve had,” Jacobson said after Wednesday’s 73-62 loss to Grand Canyon. “It can get to be where you feel like you’re always working uphill and our guys have done a good job of handling that. The best way they know how is to get in and shoot a bunch of shots and work so that when it gets swung around to them they’re prepared, and they are.”
AJ Green represented recent evidence of Jacobson’s remarks as the freshman phenom busted out of a funk with a career-high 27 points in the loss to Grand Canyon. Spencer Haldeman — who’s 1 for his last 18 from 3-point range — is the next most glaring example of a Panther that could soon break out and benefit from extra work.
2. Get to the free throw line
In each of the Panthers’ Division-I wins, they outperformed their opponent at the free throw line.
Without Austin Phyfe’s established interior presence, the need to find ways to get to the charity stripe has been magnified, especially given recent shooting struggles.
Tywon Pickford and Miles Wentzien’s insertion into the starting lineup seems to be a move somewhat designed to create more interior scoring and, consequently, more free-throw opportunities. The duo is unafraid to drive to the hoop and the inability of UNI’s offense to consistently get to the rim was something Jacobson made a point to mention multiple times when addressing his team’s struggles before the lineup change.
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3. Post touches
While the Panthers’ post presence has all but vanished with the absence of Phyfe (vasovagal syncope), the need to at minimum give their post players touches remains important.
Luke McDonnell (7.8 ppg) has been steady since stepping into Phyfe’s role before the season began, but what’s made him UNI’s fourth-leading scorer hasn’t been prowess in the paint. Whether it’s McDonnell or Shandon Goldman, the Panthers are unquestionably better when passes head to the perimeter from the paint.
Shooting struggles and the inability to consistently drive to the hoop could both be helped by re-emphasizing post touches on nearly every possession.