CEDAR FALLS — After back-to-back seasons that haven’t met Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson’s standards, a three-pronged approach is being instilled day-by-day with a youthful team.
Jacobson said at Wednesday’s annual media day that he and his staff have been preaching “the process,” personal and collective accountability, as well as working through adversity.
“When you’re young, when you’re new, and there’s so many things that you’ve got to learn, sometimes that gets in the way of playing really hard,” Jacobson said. “We aren’t at the point yet where we’ve been able to combine the two.”
With Bennett Koch gone to graduation, Jacobson and the Panthers are positioned to ramp up the pace of their offense. Now over two weeks into practice, ball movement has increased and perimeter shooting has improved, all while a number of different four-guard lineups have been utilized.
“In terms of increasing the pace of play, we’ve had some different stretches in practice where we’ve seen (where) it almost gets going up and down so fast, it almost feels a little like a pickup game and I want to pull my hair out just a little bit,” Jacobson said. “But so far, the change on the offensive end has been good.”
Defensively, as is custom with Jacobson every October, there’s a lot of improvement needed. The Panthers ranked first in the Missouri Valley a season ago, giving up only 62.3 points to their opponents, but considering the amount of newcomers and players sliding into larger roles, there’s a long way to go yet before getting back to No. 1.
“At the defensive end of the floor is where championships are won,” Jacobson said. “So we’ll continue to hammer away at it.”
Individually, the conversation begins and ends with A.J. Green, a four-star recruit who was ranked among ESPN’s top-100. Green has already been given the keys to the offense, and his ability to transfer his high-scoring, highly-efficient game from high school to college will loom large on the win-loss column for the Panthers. Meanwhile, transfers Trae Berhow and Shandon Goldman are the other two newcomers poised to contribute immediately.
“(A.J.’s) a talented young guy,” Jacobson said. “What sets him apart is his work ethic. He wants to be able to be part of a championship team right now, and be part of a team that plays in the NCAA Tournament and does that right now.
“(Trae Berhow’s) catch and shoot is really good. He’s going to be a terrific player. (Biggie and Trae) have both been very important.”
After two consecutive seasons at or below .500, Jacobson made it clear what his message would be to fans that have been left wanting more.
“I’d come and watch these guys play is what I’d do,” Jacobson said. “They’re going to be fun to watch.”
• Tywhon Pickford, an MVC All-Freshman honoree, is two weeks away from being medically cleared after having foot surgery six weeks ago.
• Sophomore forward Austin Phyfe is in the midst of treating a curious medical condition that he first suffered symptoms from six weeks ago when he passed out while at his off-campus apartment. While still seeking a second opinion, Phyfe says vasovagal syncope has been suggested as the condition he’s suffering from.
“I had a little episode where I passed out and had some amnesia from it,” Phyfe explained. “(A) couple days ago we kind of got a little bit of answers and finally got me on some medication. Because I’ve still been having those instances. We’re thinking we’re almost to an answer.”
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Given UNI’s health uncertainties, especially with Phyfe, Jacobson would not commit to a starting five Wednesday. It’s likely that Green, Wyatt Lohaus, Berhow, Isaiah Brown and Goldman begin the season as UNI’s starting five. But, given the Panthers' injury situation, there could be a number of different starting lineups throughout the first month or two of the season.