CEDAR FALLS — The Northern Iowa men’s basketball team is already feeling the positive effects of having six seniors on its 2019-2020 roster.
“I think it really adds to the excitement. You can feel the experience at practice,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said at Thursday’s media day. “Practice has been more competitive because of the depth of our roster and the experience that we’ve got this year, and that’s the best way to get better. Fight it out at practice.”
The Panthers — picked third in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll — are also feeling positive effects of having six newcomers. Forwards Noah Carter and James Betz, along with guard Antwan Kimmons are the new faces Jacobson says will compete for minutes.
Carter is a positionless do-it-all guy and Betz has tremendous athleticism but needs polish. Kimmons received the most praise from Jacobson as he described how the freshman guard hasn’t backed down from sophomore AJ Green or senior Spencer Haldeman in practices.
While a senior-heavy roster has its benefits, the Panthers — who nearly made the NCAA Tournament a year ago before losing an 18-point lead to Bradley in the MVC tournament championship game — will rely heavily upon three juniors and Green to get them toward annual goals of a conference championship and an NCAA berth.
Green — who was the MVC’s freshman of the year last season — was selected to the All-MVC preseason first team and has continued to progress and expand his game.
“The biggest changes we’ve seen from AJ (are) probably in terms of his communication,” Jacobson said. “Defensively where he is today in comparison to where he was a year ago when we were in this room? Night and day.”
One of UNI’s three juniors that will be counted upon heavily is Austin Phyfe. Phyfe received a medical redshirt after only playing in seven games last season due to a rare condition called vasovagal syncope. Now, back at full health, the former Waverly-Shell Rock standout will play a quarterback’s role in UNI’s offense.
“With the change that we made to our offense (last season) that position is the quarterback of what we’re doing now once we get into the quarter-court,” Jacobson said. “Now Austin, he’s got some of those same qualities (as Luke McDonnell). He doesn’t have the experience. But physically he’s able to bring some different things into the mix.”
That quarterback spot Jacobson references when speaking about UNI’s offense is a position that McDonnell excelled at with vision, instincts and as an occasional floor-spacing three. Jacobson went on to describe how Phyfe’s ability to roll to the hoop, post up, rebound and simply play with more size and athleticism will add to an offense that’s much further along than it was a year ago.
“Last year at this time we were still talking about what exactly (the new offense) was going to look like and how much of it we were going to put in,” Jacobson said. “We’re well past those initial stages, to the point where our guys have got an understanding of why were are doing things. What reads we need to be making. We wouldn’t have had any of those things a year ago today.”
UNI opens its regular season at home on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. against Old Dominion.
UNI men’s basketball media day notes
— Freshman Cole Henry (knee) is still rehabbing his injury, will redshirt, and is about a month away from rejoining practices.
— Along with Henry, Evan Gauger and Derek Krogmann will redshirt.
— UNI will play two closed scrimmages against North Dakota State and South Dakota State instead of playing exhibition games against Division II or Division II opponents.
— Green, Haldeman, Isaiah Brown, Berhow and Austin Phyfe are currently the starters.
— Jacobson expects the rotation to be nine or 10 players deep.