CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa faces what will perhaps be its toughest Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball road game to date Saturday night.
The Panthers (22-3, 11-2) visit second-place Loyola-Chicago (17-9, 9-4) for a 7 p.m. tipoff (ESPN2).
It took overtime for UNI to defeat the Ramblers 67-62 at McLeod Center last month. This go-around, at what’s set to be a sold-out Gentile Arena, will be a tough test as the Panthers have lost their last four games at Loyola.
“To me, you’ve got to go in (there) and gotta be who you are,” UNI head coach Jacobson said. “Specific to Loyola, defensively they turn people over. They’re able to get deflections. They’re able to get steals. So, like we did against Illinois State and (Valparaiso) the second time around, we were much better (with turnovers). We’ve got to do that again.”
Saturday night’s game is also another opportunity for UNI to continue to gain national exposure and potentially be seen by members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
The Panthers have played on national TV six times this season (including ESPNU), but Jacobson said he doesn’t give any extra attention to where games are broadcast.
“They all count as one,” Jacobson said. “What I like about our team right now, and I like about our staff and the way we approach it, my message is the same today at practice as it was in the middle of December.”
Jacobson said last month that the win over Loyola was his team’s best defensive performance of the season. So, while the Panthers’ offensive metrics continue to set Jacobson-era records, there’s still daily work being done to eliminate defensive inconsistencies.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“It feels a little bit (inconsistent) like what we were doing offensively a year ago,” Jacobson said. “We have made good strides in the last 10 days, two weeks. At this time we need to be picking up some possessions. You don’t want to be leaving seven (or) eight possessions out there defensively where they get a back-cut, or they get an open 3. We’ve still got work to do there.”
While Loyola lost at UNI it did prove itself capable of limiting AJ Green.
Green, who surpassed 1,000 career points in the Panthers’ win over Illinois State on Wednesday, scored 14 points on 4-of-12 shooting against the Ramblers. It marked just the sixth time this season he’s scored 14 points or fewer and Jacobson praised the Ramblers, whose defense is ranked first in the MVC, for their execution of double teams and pick-and-roll coverage.
Green’s production, as always, will be key Saturday night, however, the Austin Phyfe-Cameron Krutwig matchup is again poised to be most important to both teams’ chances of success. Krutwig needed 19 shots to reach 19 points in the first game, while Phyfe scored 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds for the Panthers.
“Biggest thing is he’s got to be himself,” Jacobson said. “He’s playing his tail off. He’s been efficient at the offensive end. He’s rebounding hard (at) both ends. That’s the biggest thing, because sometimes when you’re playing against somebody that good you get caught up in what they’re doing and everything you have to do to take care of the matchup, when my message to Austin is going to be, ‘man, just be yourself.’ We love how he’s playing.”