CEDAR FALLS — For weeks, the prevailing feeling around the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team has been that the Panthers had time to right the ship after another slow start in conference play.
And while they still have plenty of chances to do so, the window for making such a turnaround is shrinking, as UNI begins to enter dangerous, potentially uncharted territory.
It would be an understatement to say that the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament has been unkind to its bottom four seeds. Forced to play a Thursday game, not only have seeds 7-10 never won an Arch Madness title, only one team from that end of the bracket has even reached the semifinals.
UNI, which has yet to play a Thursday Arch Madness game in the Ben Jacobson era, currently occupies one of those spots, as the Panthers are tied with Valparaiso and Evansville at the bottom of the MVC standings.
After working their way from last all the way up to third by tournament time last year, players say they haven’t given up hope of completing such a turnaround this year.
“We’re still very confident,” junior guard Wyatt Lohaus said. “I know our team, when we’re playing our best is among the best teams in the league. And I know we’ve shown we can play to the level we’re capable of and the level we need to be.”
But as the conference season approaches its midway point, the Panthers are beginning to run out of chances to prove their championship mettle in the Valley.
At 2-6, UNI is two games behind the three teams directly in front of them in the standings. One of those teams, Southern Illinois, completed a season sweep of the Panthers on Sunday, while another, Bradley, already has a head-to-head win over them.
UNI’s first chance to make up notable ground comes Wednesday, when the third team of that group, Illinois State, visits the McLeod Center.
After losing arguably the best Valley trio from last season’s 28-win team (MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee graduated while Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh transferred) the Redbirds were somehow able to put together another three-man group that has picked up where they left off.
St. Louis transfer Milik Yarbrough is fourth in the MVC in scoring at 16.7 points per game, while returners Phil Fayne (16.3) and Keyshawn Evans (15.6) are right behind in fifth and sixth.
But unlike last year, Illinois State has been unable to find scoring help for its star trio, as everyone else on the roster is scoring less than six a contest.
And though a lack of depth has hampered ISU at times, the biggest difference from last year has come at the defensive end.
The league’s stingiest defense a season ago (61.3 ppg) has been its leakiest (75.0) this season. The Redbirds’ points allowed numbers spiked Saturday in an embarrassing 84-54 loss at Indiana State.
While the odds of having to play a bottom-four game would increase further with a loss Wednesday, Jacobson, rarely one to take the long view, isn’t looking beyond the next game.
“That’s a long time from now,” he said of the conference tournament. “I’ve got no thoughts on that right now.”
Lohaus says he and his teammates are putting pressure on themselves to get better, but for reasons that extend beyond how it affects their standing in St. Louis.
“I would say there’s a bigger sense of urgency, but not so much for (seeding) as just we want to have the season we’re capable of,” Lohaus said. “We know it’s getting close, but there’s still a decent amount of games left to turn this thing around and continue to get some good momentum going. “
Wednesday’s game tips at 7 p.m.
FREE TICKET OFFER: Fans can get into Wednesday’s game free of charge with a donation to the United Way’s Iowa Foster Care Program in Black Hawk County
Donations are being accepted for teenagers who will be aging out of the program. Items being collected include laundry baskets, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, fabric softener, hangers, shampoo, deodorant, soap, lotion, duffel bags, towels, wash clothes and blankets.