CEDAR FALLS — The Northern Iowa men’s basketball team is in the midst of its first overseas trip in six years, following an up and down 2018-19 season.
Starting forward Austin Phyfe was lost for the year after seven games (vasovagal syncope) and the Panthers sputtered to a 3-7 record against Division-I non-conference opponents to begin the season.
UNI finished 9-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference and thanks to a 4-2 mark in its last six games, it avoided the dreaded Thursday game at the MVC Tournament with the No. 6-seed.
Most notably, a remarkable performance from the now graduated Wyatt Lohaus led UNI into the MVC tournament championship game, but a second half surge by Bradley overcame a 15-point Panthers lead, extinguishing hopes of an NCAA Tournament automatic bid.
Five months later, head coach Ben Jacobson says that instead of being motivated by the sting his players may have felt by falling short in the conference tournament title game, he’s made a point to positively reinforce his returnees on sticking to the plan last season.
“I’ve talked about it more in terms of how well we played the last month and in the Valley tournament,” Jacobson responded. “But, (I’ve) more talked about how and why we were in that position. What it comes back to, the one thing, the guys stayed with it. They stayed together. Period. There were plenty of challenges along the way with the way the season unfolded, but, as I tell them, that’s not unique to us.”
One of the players still feeling the sting from March’s conference tournament is AJ Green.
“(The sting) is still there,” Green said. “I think it’ll be there until we make it past that point and get to the (NCAA) tournament. It’ll come up in my mind and give me a sour taste.”
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Helping to alleviate the sting of last season is the progress Green has seen himself and his teammates make entering year two of an offense brought into existence before last season by first-year graduate assistant and former UNI All-American Seth Tuttle.
“We’re years ahead right now compared to where we were at this point last year,” Green said.
He isn’t the only Panther that’s seen the improvement in the offense. Senior guard Spencer Haldeman, who has led UNI in scoring in its two games in Italy, echoed his sophomore teammate.
“I was talking to (Tuttle) and he was like, ‘You guys should watch last year’s (film) at this time — the way you guys used to run the offense,’” Haldeman said. “(So) I think we’re progressing well with it.”