UNI Panthers

UNI basketball takeaways: Defensive improvement, keeping AJ Green in rhythm, scouting Missouri State

Panthers host Bears after big win over Loyola-Chicago

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 the first half of a game at McLeod Center in Cedar Falls on Sunday, January 13, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — After its 67-62 overtime win over Loyola-Chicago (14-7, 6-2) Sunday, Northern Iowa moved back into a tie for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.

The Panthers may also have unlocked what will take them to another level.

Coach Ben Jacobson said his team’s defensive effort Sunday was the best of the season. At his weekly press conference, Jacobson expanded on his team’s defense, and a couple other topics.

Here’s what we learned:

1. Defense against Loyola was much improved

While the Panthers have solidified themselves as contenders for the Valley’s regular season and tournament championships through their play so far this season, they continue to be a team with room to improve.

UNI’s defense ranks fourth in the Valley and it’s been a recurring topic whenever Jacobson has commented on where his team can improve.

So, after holding Loyola to a season-low field goal percentage (36.4%) Sunday, Jacobson made sure to point out the improvements he witnessed.

“There was a better level of discipline,” Jacobson said. “(We) did a better job of playing team defense and not getting caught up in what their guy was doing. I suppose you cap it with the effort. The effort possession after possession defensively, was the best that I feel like it’s been for us for the entire game.”

2. Keeping AJ Green in rhythm

As opponents continue to search for ways to slow down AJ Green, Jacobson and his staff continue to search for ways to disrupt those plans for the 2018-19 MVC Freshman of the Year.

Jacobson pointed out this week how UNI’s interchangeability with its ball handlers continues to help work around the defenses employed toward Green, but also acknowledged that it’s always a fluid process in-game to evaluate who’s best to be at point guard.

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“It’s really important that as a coaching staff we do a terrific job with our guys on the offensive side of it because they’re going to guard AJ different than they’re going to guard Isaiah (Brown), (Tywhon Pickord), Antwan (Kimmons) and even Spencer (Haldeman) to a point,” Jacobson said. “So when we’re running stuff our guys have to be well-schooled on exactly where we’re going to go to set a screen. Or exactly what’s going to happen on this action. If AJ has it it’s going to look like this. If AJ doesn’t have it it’s going to look like this.”

3. Scouting Missouri State

Up next for UNI is its second go-around with Valley preseason favorite Missouri State (10-11, 4-4). The Panthers blew out the Bears 80-57 back on Jan. 11 after gaining a 20-point lead by halftime.

Missouri State coach Dana Ford has made a number of changes since the two teams first met. Ford has changed his starting lineup, altered the Bears rotation altogether and made changes to their offense.

“They’ve won two of their last three,” Jacobson pointed out. “They’re playing faster. They’re playing more in transition. There’s a number of things that are different.”

UNI hosts Missouri State at 6 p.m. Wednesday (Fox Sports Midwest).

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