CEDAR FALLS — Some fans might expect to feel a sense of desperation coming out of the McLeod Center this afternoon.
Like Northern Iowa, Loyola was expected to be a major Missouri Valley Conference contender this season, but has struggled to look the part early in MVC play.
The Ramblers, whose strong non-conference run was highlighted by an upset win over then-No. 5 Florida, come to Cedar Falls just 1-2 in the Valley following a sluggish 61-57 home loss to Indiana State Wednesday.
Loyola hasn’t been the same since an injury to Clayton Custer, a former Iowa State guard who was averaging 12.5 points and 4.2 assists in the first 10 games of the season. The Ramblers are 2-3 without Custer, who hurt his ankle during the Florida win.
But with two preseason all-conference selections in Aundre Jackson (13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds per game) and Donte Ingram (11.6, 6.7), as well as another potent offensive weapon in Marques Townes (12.5 points, 2.7 assists), a still talented Rambler team may well play with a backs-to-the-wall mentality as it tries to avoid plummeting further in the MVC standings.
But with his own team in an 0-3 hole, and the only team without a Valley win, Panther coach Ben Jacobson says an opponent’s mental state is the furthest thing from his mind.
Problems in transition, whether it’s allowing easy baskets on defense or turning the ball over on offense, have been the primary catalyst for UNI’s struggles during a losing streak that has stretched five games going back to the end of non-conference play.
The Panthers are also coming off their worst rebounding performance of the season. In Thursday’s 62-55 loss at Missouri State, the Bears held a 51-26 edge on the glass.
So while he appreciates the situation Loyola may be in, Jacobson’s biggest concern is fixing the many things that ail his squad at the moment.
“It doesn’t matter to me who we play next,” Jacobson said. “Loyola’s got a very good team and (Coach Porter Moser) knows that’s not directed at them. Until we change (some) things, it doesn’t matter what else we do and it doesn’t matter who we play.”
Senior forward Klint Carlson seems to agree with his coach, saying he expects the best effort from every conference foe and that he and his teammates need to do a better job of matching their opponents’ energy.
“It’s a whole different battle (in) conference play,” Carlson said. “We’ve got to fight through some things and figure it out and be tough and be hard on one another and come in every day and just work. Every game’s a battle. We just have to come out fighting, see how it goes.”
If there’s a sense of optimism coming from the Panther locker room, it may stem from an impressive close to Thursday’s game when a 17-2 run cut a 19-point Missouri State lead to four with under 30 seconds to play.
Feeling he saw glimpses of the team that had a top-20 RPI ranking a few short weeks ago in that late rally, freshman guard Tywhon Pickford remains hopeful he and his teammates can once again play with a similar fire for a full 40 minutes.
“When we play hard and do what we’re supposed to do, we can be up there with those teams,” Pickford said. “We can beat them when we have those stretches where we come down and get stops. We just have to do it consistently.”
Today’s game tips at 3 p.m.