CEDAR FALLS — The Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball preseason poll predicts a conference championship repeat for the Northern Iowa Panthers this season.
UNI received 30 of 44 first-place votes while Loyola garnered 13 and third-place Bradley received one.
It’s the first time since 2009-10 that the Panthers have been the preseason favorite. That season turned into the program’s most memorable with a trip to the Sweet 16 and an NCAA Tournament win over top-seed Kansas.
Juniors AJ Green — last season’s Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year — and Austin Phyfe were named to the preseason all-conference first team. Senior Trae Berhow was named to the third team.
Asked if being picked as the favorite entering such an unusual season feels the same, UNI Coach Ben Jacobson explained how seeing the poll was different for him this year..
“The only place I would say (being the favorite) feels a little bit different is there’s just so much uncertainty,” Jacobson said. “In a normal year I was probably waiting to see that (preseason) poll. More anxious to see that poll. (But) I didn’t even think about (this one). That’s simply to do with everything going on in our country and the uncertainty with where we’re at with COVID. It still means the same as it would in any other year, I just haven’t paid attention to it as much.”
Jacobson acknowledged that having a veteran team in a season without exhibition games and a shortened non-conference works in the Panthers’ favor. However, due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts there is some anxiety due to only recently beginning to play 5-on-5 in practice.
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“Up until a week ago Monday we structured everything to follow the protocols so we wouldn’t knock out our entire team (with a positive test),” Jacobson said. “We’re at a point now where we’re going to have to play some 5-on-5 at some point. We’ve got to get into live action. For our guys — they’ve been great so far (mitigating) — but, man, you’ve just got to be extremely diligent and extremely responsible. You almost have to be at the gym and have to be at your apartment now that we’ve gotten to this point and we are playing 5-on-5.”
Beyond the Panthers there were a few common themes from the league’s coaches on Thursday.
Indiana State Coach Greg Lansing led off MVC media day by sending up a flare to the league to enforce identical COVID-19 protocols among all teams.
“Looking across the board we really need to be unified with all these protocols everybody (has),” Lansing said. “Some people are doing different stuff and you just can’t have it. Everybody has got to be on a level playing field and unified.”
Besides concern for COVID-19 protocols there was a consensus of optimism about the league’s position to get multiple NCAA Tournament bids for the first time since 2016.
“Like every year there’s great balance, but I think there’s a lot of teams that feel like if they can piece some things together — you’re sitting with Loyola and Northern Iowa with a ton of guys back at the top — but I think there’s a lot of other teams that feel like they have good rosters and if things go their way and they can get on a roll they can be in that position,” Drake coach Darian DeVries said.