CARBONDALE, Ill. — Fans of offensive basketball likely found little enjoyment in Northern Iowa’s Dec. 28 Missouri Valley Conference opener against Southern Illinois.
Heavily favored to defend their home court, the Panthers came out flat against an injury-riddled Saluki team, scoring just three points in the opening 8:51 of what became a 56-53 loss.
Three weeks removed from that ugly defeat, Panther players don’t sugarcoat their assessment of that performance.
“We just came out soft,” said leading scorer Bennett Koch, who had almost as many turnovers (four) as points (five) in the game. “They outworked us, they hustled. A couple plays down the stretch they were diving on the floor, which got them energized.”
The poor offensive showing carried over, as UNI proceeded to lose its next four Missouri Valley Conference games.
But thanks to an offense that has finally found a rhythm over the last two games, there’s reason for optimism in the Panther locker room heading into today’s rematch at SIU.
After shooting just 39 percent in its first five Valley games, UNI has hit 48 percent of its shots in the last two. Not surprisingly, that improvement has led to wins.
The Panthers followed a Jan. 13 victory over Valparaiso with arguably their biggest win of the season, a 68-54 win over Valley leader Drake on Tuesday in which they overcame a 16-point first-half deficit.
Now, a UNI team that’s 0-4 in true road games is tasked with carrying over its momentum against an SIU squad that is even more undermanned than the first meeting.
Since leaving Cedar Falls, the Salukis have shut down center Thik Bol (knee), forward Jonathan Wiley (knee) and guard Eric McGill (hand) for the season, forcing them to go with an eight-man rotation. But despite its lack of manpower, Southern Illinois has thus far remained competitive in the Valley, entering Sunday with a mark of 3-4.
The highlight of the Salukis’ season came last Saturday when they put together a 27-9 run over the last 7:50 to secure a 74-70 home upset of Illinois State. Armon Fletcher, the Valley’s 10th-leading scorer, led the comeback effort with 26 points.
Though it didn’t show up in the final boxscore, the SIU offense did give UNI fits at times in December, particularly from the 3-point line. After connecting on just one of their first 10 shots from behind the arc, the Salukis hit eight of their final 11, with four of those makes by Marcus Bartley off the bench.
So while sharpening the offense remains a priority, UNI coach Ben Jacobson is also stressing the importance of consistency on the other end of the court.
“Defensively, you just keep working to cut out the mistakes,” he said. “We’ve got to keep getting better at that end of the floor.”
TRANSFER TROUBLES: Jacobson and SIU coach Barry Hinson have different reactions regarding one of the major issues facing mid-major college basketball.
When FanRag Sports reported earlier this week that the NCAA will soon meet to discuss a potential rule that would allow players to transfer without having to sit out a year, the two coaches responded with diverging degrees of intensity.
“If the media doesn’t take hold of this right now, you can shut mid-major basketball and low-major basketball down. It’s over,” Hinson said. “I’m telling you right now, we are getting ready to be a farm club system. I love this league, but ... this is done if this rule goes through.”
While not thrilled with the potential change, either, Jacobson had a far less gloom-and-doom assessment, saying it would do little to alter the approach of he and his staff.
“We’ve worked hard to build a family and a culture here at our place and we’re going to recruit guys that believe in that,” Jacobson said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to continue to recruit the same way that we have. We’re going to work hard in the recruiting process to get to know the young guys and their families. We’re going to recruit the guys that we feel are a great fit for us.