CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa took care of business this past week, defeating Missouri State at home Wednesday and beating Evansville on the road.
A rematch Wednesday night with Valparaiso (12-11, 5-5) — this time in Indiana — and a home game Saturday afternoon against in-state rival Drake (15-8, 5-5) lies ahead this week for Panthers (19-3, 8-2). They continue to be the Missouri Valley Conference’s only team with a shot at an NCAA men’s basketball tournament at-large berth with their No. 43 NET ranking.
Here’s what we learned at Coach Ben Jacobson’s weekly news conference:
1. Life without the 3-ball
While it’s typical of Evansville’s base defense to stretch out and guard the 3-point line closely, Saturday’s win over the Purple Aces was another opportunity for UNI to perform its offense without the luxury of open 3-point shots.
UNI sits comfortably in first place in the MVC in 3s made per game (9.6), but only needed five to get an 80-68 win Saturday. Jacobson credits his team’s success against the Purple Aces’ style of defense, that his team continues to see more frequently, to his group’s experience.
“So if a team, as we saw with Evansville, if they’re going to stretch out and take away the catch-and-shoot stuff (our) guys have been through that now for more than just a handful of games,” he said. “We saw some of it a year ago. That makes a big difference.”
2. Austin Phyfe is formidable in post
After missing last season with a medical issue, Austin Phyfe has exceeded expectations in his return to UNI’s starting lineup as a redshirt sophomore.
His 68-percent mark from the field and 71 offensive rebounds are tops in the MVC. Phyfe is capably handling the point-center responsibilities that are required from the Panthers’ European-style offense.
Despite his success, Jacobson continues to point out the intangibles Phyfe brings to the team and how his positive, team-first attitude hasn’t changed in light of his success.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“His efficiency at the offensive end is at a level that you don’t see very often,” Jacobson said. “He gives us that presence defensively. But, I still go back to the two things about having Phyfe back, one; his impact on his teammates, his impact on us as coaches, his impact on the feel of what we’re doing in film, on the practice floor, getting in the plane, seeing him in the hallway. Number two, he’s just got a tremendous work ethic.”
3. Scouting Valparaiso
Last month at the McLeod Center, UNI’s AJ Green (29 points) and Valparaiso guard Javon Freeman-Liberty (28) put on a display that cemented their statuses as favorites for the Valley’s Larry Bird Player of the Year award.
The Crusaders have gone 3-2 since their 88-78 loss to the Panthers on Jan. 15 and have sharp-shooting forward Ryan Fazekas back in their lineup.
“(Fazekas) adds an elite level shooter to their lineup,” Jacobson said. “It stretches the floor and makes it more challenging to defend Freeman-Liberty, and I could list the (other) guys off that we saw (last game).”