UNI Panthers

UNI basketball takeaways: How NCAA's NET rankings factor into in-game coaching decisions

Panthers and MVC-leading offense host Valparaiso on Wednesday

Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Northern Iowa Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — After an 80-57 road blowout of Missouri Valley preseason favorite Missouri State last Saturday, Northern Iowa (14-2, 3-1) remains positioned as an at-large contender for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

At his weekly news conference, UNI coach Ben Jacobson spoke about the Panthers’ at-large situation, continued growth in year two of a no-longer-new offense and the challenge Valparaiso (9-8, 2-2) offers Wednesday night when it visits McLeod Center.

Here’s what we learned:

1. NET Rankings metrics cannot be ignored

When the NCAA transitioned from RPI to NET rankings for its evaluators tool, it changed in-game dynamics for coaches across the country. Part of what’s taken into account for a team’s NET rankings are its KenPom offense and defensive efficiency, as well as margin of victory.

So, during Saturday’s 23-point blowout of Missouri State, Jacobson stuck with his starters despite the comfortable lead. Asked if his team’s NET ranking factored into that decision, Jacobson acknowledged it does. But in terms of priority, it’s still not at the top of his mind.

“As I’ve thought about (NET rankings) — and maybe it’s something I need to rearrange the order of it — but when I think about it when we go into the game and when we’re playing the games, number one is, ‘how are we playing?’ Then two, ‘can we get some experiences for some younger guys to keep growing as a team?’ And then third is ‘all right, if there’s an opportunity — no matter what the score is, ahead (or) behind — to finish off a game and increase our efficiency numbers. You have to be thinking of that,’” Jacobson said.

2. Offense takes Year 2 leap

Saturday’s blowout also was another example of the Panthers’ progress in the second year of an offense brought to Cedar Falls by former All-American Seth Tuttle.

UNI is averaging an MVC-leading 76.2 points per game and ranks 29th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric used by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

With a season-and-a-half of experience, it’s safe to say the Panthers’ offense is no longer “new.”

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“I’d say we probably hit (the not “new” point) a year ago at the end of the year,” Jacobson said. “Things we were doing the last month of the season last year we certainly weren’t doing in the first month. Because we’ve been healthy for the most part and the guys are second year in the system, I think they’ve got a pretty good confidence in (the offense) right now.”

3. Scouting Valparaiso

After a number of offseason departures, this year’s Valparaiso team is much different from last year’s that split the season series with UNI.

Sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty leads the Crusaders and the MVC, averaging 20.5 points per game. Mileek McMillan and Donovan Clay have brought perimeter shooting to the Crusades’ frontcourt.

“They look a lot different without that size inside,” Jacobson said. “Those guys at those (frontcourt) positions, that center position, now are guys that are skilled. Guys that are shooting 3-point shots for them. Guys that handle the basketball. And you didn’t have to deal with that last year with the two 7-footers.”

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