CEDAR FALLS — To say that Northern Iowa has struggled in the second halves of Missouri Valley Conference games would be a large-scale understatement.
While an offense that has averaged just under 60 points in those games gets most of the blame, the Panther defense, while impressively ranked sixth in the country in scoring, has also been leaky at times, resulting in a 3-8 Valley start few have an explanation for.
In 11 games, the Panthers are allowing 38.9 second-half points, a whopping 13.4 point jump over what they allow in the first half. Much of the problem stems from an inability to defend the 3-point line, where Valley teams are shooting 53 percent in the second half.
As a result, UNI has been outscored in nine second halves and suffered five losses in which they held a lead in the final 20 minutes.
After generating at-large NCAA Tournament buzz in the non-conference season, UNI players admit they are at a loss at how to describe these struggles.
“If we knew the answer to that, we’d fix it,” center Bennett Koch said. “I don’t think we’d be struggling right now.”
One way UNI coach Ben Jacobson has attempted to correct the problem is by shifting his lineup coming out of halftime.
For the most part, Jacobson has fulfilled his preseason goal of finding a starting lineup he could stick to. With the exception of the surprise decision to sit leading scorer for Koch for freshman Austin Phyfe 17 games in, the Panthers have kept the same starting five, a far cry from a season ago when UNI utilized nine different lineups in the first 16 games.
But over the last five outings, it’s become difficult to predict who Jacobson will trot out after halftime.
Spencer Haldeman, who played a full 20 second-half minutes against Drake on Jan. 16, has played just 20 combined minutes in the four games since.
Starting point guard Juwan McCloud has played double-digit minutes three times, but twice hasn’t seen the floor after halftime.
Hunter Rhodes, one of four non-starters to open the second half against Evansville Wednesday, played all 20 second-half minutes in that game, three more than he’d played in any previous full game this season.
Jacobson says the recent change-ups haven’t been done to send anyone a message. But with the time to correct course quickly dwindling, he knows there’s no time to spare anyone’s feelings.
“It’s not directed at a guy or two, three, four guys,” he said. “We’re just trying to find the right combination. There’s just some things we’ve got to do better. Some things we’ve got to get cleaned up, some plays we have to make.”
Though he wasn’t prepared to announce anything definitive following Wednesday’s loss, Jacobson did leave the door open for further lineup changes when the Panthers host Indiana State 3 p.m. Saturday.
“We’ll see,” Jacobson said. “We’ll look at the film and see.”
The Sycamores, who beat UNI 69-67 on Jan. 10, are one of six teams to shoot better than 50 percent in the second half against the Panthers over the last seven games.
ROAD WOES: UNI’s current road losing streak of nine games, which dates back to Feb. 12 of last year, is its longest since an 11-game skid in the 2002-03 season.
The Panthers, who have three road games remaining, haven’t gone winless on the road during MVC play since the 1994-95 and 2000-01 seasons.
UNI has two home games before returning to the road to face Drake on Feb. 10.