CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa’s third Missouri Valley Conference loss at second-place Loyola-Chicago on Saturday night didn’t eliminate its NCAA tournament at-large chances.
It did, however, shrink the Panthers’ margin for error considerably.
UNI’s NET ranking dropped from 36 to 40 after its loss to the Ramblers, but with no regular season quad 1 or quad 2 games remaining, it’s likely the Panthers (22-4, 11-3) will need to win all four games before the MVC tournament begins.
With that in mind, here’s what we learned this week at Coach Ben Jacobson’s news conference:
1. AJ Green, the masked man
A dive on the floor for a loose ball late in Saturday’s loss to Loyola ended with a broken nose for AJ Green.
Green also dealt with a severe black eye earlier this week, but, according to Jacobson. the Panthers’ leading scorer will not miss any games and has been in good spirits. Jacobson also said this week Green will wear a face mask for protection.
“Most likely (AJ) will be wearing a mask ... whether it’s the short-term or the entire rest of the season,” Jacobson said. “Some of that will still be determined, but most likely he’ll have a mask on Thursday. He isn’t having any trouble breathing through his nose, so that’s good.”
2. UNI's limited rotation
After getting behind by 16 points in the first half of Saturday night’s loss, the Panthers rotation shrunk as Jacobson leaned on his starters to get the game back even.
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Key reserves Tywhon Pickford, Justin Dahl and Antwan Kimmons played a combined 10 minutes while all five starters played more than 40 due to the game going into overtime. Throughout the five-minute OT — in which Loyola outscored the Panthers 11-2 — fatigue seemed to catch up with UNI’s starters.
“At that point (of the second half) for guys that haven’t played — now you’re 25, 28 minutes into the game — as much as I trust (Pickford), Antwan and Noah (Carter) and (Dahl), they’ve helped us win games, but you get 25 to 28 minutes into a game and you really haven’t played many possessions that’s a tough time,” Jacobson said.
3. Home cooking for Valley teams
With only four games remaining in the regular season, it’s become unmistakably obvious home teams have held a decided advantage against their conference foes.
Jacobson explained how the emergence of AAU basketball over the past decade-plus seemed to chip away at profound home court advantages, but Loyola (12-2), Southern Illinois (11-2) Bradley (14-1), Drake (13-1) and the Panthers' next opponent, Indiana State (10-1), have all been nearly unbeatable in their home arenas.
The Panthers are at Indiana State on Thursday at 6 p.m.
“This year seems to be back to what it used to be 20 years ago when the home teams won all the time,” Jacobson said. “I don’t remember it being quite like this the last two, three, four years. I think a big part of that, for me, is experience. The other thing that’s come back this year is crowds.”