CEDAR FALLS — Despite suffering its largest Missouri Valley Conference loss in program history to Loyola-Chicago last Sunday, Northern Iowa men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson remains confident about the work his team is putting in to reshape itself without star guard AJ Green.
Facing a potential 12-day layoff between the Loyola and Southern Illinois series, Jacobson scheduled non-conference games against Division III Cornell College and Coe College for last Thursday and this Monday, respectively, to keep giving his team opportunities to play regularly. However, the Panthers were forced to cancel the game against Cornell due to player availability issues.
“As I talked about with my staff, the opportunity to play some games, I think, is really important for our team,” Jacobson said.
The continued reshaping and retooling of the Panthers’ offense has largely centered on senior guard Trae Berhow. The results have been mixed.
Berhow — averaging 12.2 points per game — has scored as much as 18 in a game since Green’s season-ending injury, and as little as three on 0-for-7 shooting in the recent 88-46 loss to Loyola.
Jacobson pointed out this week how Green’s absence has many times led to opponents utilizing their best defender on Berhow. He also described how Berhow’s ability to find catch-and-shoot opportunities has been affected by his increased ball-handling duties.
“It shifts the responsibilities for a guy like Trae,” Jacobson said. “One day you’re doing the things that you worked on the whole offseason. Then, coming out of Sioux Falls (after the season-opening Crossover Classic) without AJ and Antwan (Kimmons) — AJ obviously had the ball in his hands more than Antwan did — but both of them for our team are playmakers. Both of them make the game easier for the guys around them. That’s been the biggest adjustment.”
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The development of freshman point guard Bowen Born also has played a critical role in the productivity of UNI’s offense. Born is averaging 10.8 points and Jacobson said he sees the freshman becoming more comfortable.
“I think he’s starting to find a comfort level and a confidence and starting to make that shift to being able to go out and really play his game with a lot of confidence,” Jacobson said. “He’s had enough (conference) games now where he’s felt that (scouting report).”
Beyond what’s happening on the court at the halfway point of the season, the mental health of players is not lost on Jacobson. The 14th-year coach has seen the inability for players to spend time together on the road at hotels or at home at each other’s apartments. That has had an effect on team chemistry.
“This is a team sport, man. You need to be around your teammates,” Jacobson said. “That’s the biggest change, the amount of time that you don’t spend with your teammates just hanging out. That’s a big part of college athletics, such an important part of being a team. You need the face-to-face, you need the interactions, you need to be playing cards or whatever you do as a team.
That’s the part that’s missed most right now.”
UNI (3-10) hosts Coe on Monday at 6 p.m. The Kohawks open their season Sunday against Iowa Wesleyan.