CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa is set to begin its men’s basketball season in less than four months and Coach Ben Jacobson’s team has questions that need answers if it is to replicate or improve upon its success from last season.
However, before UNI can fix its sights on the 2020-21 season, it needs the same good fortune sports everywhere are hoping for with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNI athletics revealed last Friday that among more than 150 administered COVID-19 tests, seven student-athletes and one staff member tested positive. During Tuesday’s Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball Zoom call, Jacobson revealed two of those student-athletes were men’s basketball players.
“Two of (those positives) were our guys, and that’s going back over the past, probably, two- to 2 1/2 weeks,” Jacobson said. “Both guys feel great. Both guys are doing great. They’re back in line now to get back and join the group because it’s been long enough since they’ve had symptoms and have tested positive.”
UNI’s 25-6 record and 14-4 MVC mark last season provided its first regular season league championship since 2014-15. However, its early exit in the MVC tournament quarterfinals to No. 8-seed Drake left the Panthers on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, according to many prognosticators.
While the 2019-20 Panthers will never know if they would have made the NCAA tournament because of the pandemic, this year’s team knows it has to deal with the graduations of starters Isaiah Brown and Spencer Haldeman from its backcourt.
“What Isaiah Brown did the last two years, and maybe in particular this past year, is something that (Tywhon Pickford) is looking forward to,” Jacobson said of his backcourt questions. “I’d also add Antwan Kimmons. He helped us win games this past year in limited minutes. Then we got some young guys. All three of (Bowen Born, Nate Heise and Evan Gauger) would be, from a skill-set standpoint, similar to Spencer. We feel like those three guys are going to lessen the loss of Spencer a little bit.”
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Perhaps the next biggest question for Jacobson’s roster is having four capable, scholarship players either already contributing or poised to contribute in an era when four-guard lineups have become the norm.
Jacobson spoke to how he could see getting the trio of Noah Carter, James Betz and Cole Henry each positioned to contribute to the team’s success this season.
“All three, I think, are going to find a role in one way, shape or form,” Jacobson said. “We think Cole and James will find minutes backing up Phyfe at that center spot and (I) see Noah playing more minutes at that power forward spot.”