CEDAR FALLS — Hoping he’s made a critical fix to his starting lineup, Ben Jacobson won’t risk breaking anything.
Desperate for a spark following an 0-5 start in the Missouri Valley Conference, Northern Iowa made an unexpected switch against Valparaiso Saturday, as fifth-year senior center Bennett Koch was replaced in the rotation by true freshman Austin Phyfe, who’d been a healthy scratch just six days earlier in a game against Loyola.
Though Koch had struggled as of late, the move was still a surprise, as his 13.3 points per game scoring average entering Saturday was almost half of what Phyfe had scored (27) for the entire season.
While admitting even he was taken aback by the decision, Phyfe justified his coach’s faith in him with a 20-point, eight-rebound performance, which helped the Panthers end a seven-game losing streak with an 81-76 win.
Phyfe had a nearly perfect shooting day, hitting 6-of-7 from the field and 8-of-8 from the free throw line, as UNI, which had topped 60 points just once in MVC coming in, had its second highest point total of the season.
“I felt like we needed to make a little bit of a change to try to get a different mix for us to start the game,” Jacobson said. “And Austin had a tremendous game. (I) did not anticipate he’d put up those kind of numbers.”
So after his freshman center exceeded his expectations, Jacobson sees no reason to move him back to the bench, and plans to once again start Phyfe tonight, when the Panthers host Drake, the surprise leader of the Valley.
The Bulldogs (11-8, 5-1) come in as the top-scoring offense in the Valley by a pretty wide margin, averaging 77.5 points per game. Leading the attack is senior guard Reed Timmer, the conference’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game.
But while Drake will provide a serious challenge to the Panther defense, UNI should be in position to exploit certain matchups on offense. Of the six players who’ve started games for Drake this season, just one is taller than 6-foot-3.
This could lead to greater opportunities for the 6-9, 235-pound Phyfe, who is playing with an elevated sense of confidence following his breakout game.
“Going through this whole season, I’ve still been kind of adapting to the whole college basketball thing,” said Phyfe, who also missed two early games with a concussion. “I think I’ve adapted pretty well, but (Saturday) I think I kind of got that comfort level where I played those minutes where I can now just be comfortable than that.”
Also in the process of adapting to a new role, Koch struggled in his first game off the bench against Valparaiso, scoring just two points with one rebound on 1-of-5 shooting in nine minutes.
Jacobson said Koch expressed disappointment in the news of his benching and admits it was a hard decision to make. But for a team that still needs his production on the offensive end, Jacobson remains confident Koch will be able to adjust and return to playing at a high level.
“He’s going to fight his way through this,” Jacobson said of Koch, who still leads UNI in scoring at 12.6 points per game. “As hard as it is to make that move, and as hard as it is for Bennett as a fifth-year senior, he’s going to fight his way through it.”
HOMECOMING: One of the most celebrated players in UNI history will return to the McLeod Center this evening, though he’ll do so on the opposing sideline.
Ali Farokhmanesh, who rose to national prominence with his clutch outside shooting during the Panthers’ run to the Sweet 16 in 2010, makes his first trip to Cedar Falls as a member of the Bulldog coaching staff, where he was hired as an assistant in April.
“He’s an incredibly talented coach in all areas,” Drake Head Coach Niko Medved said of Farokhmanesh. “He’s so good with people, he’s such a good teacher to our kids. Obviously him knowing everybody here in Iowa and his experience as a highly successful player in the Valley’s been huge. He’s a terrific young coach and we’re lucky to have him.”
Not surprisingly, Farokhmanesh’s return is a source of pride for his former coach.
“We’re really proud of him,” Jacobson said. “(He’s) tremendously important to our program. A guy that is as big a part of our basketball family as anybody that we’ve had over the time that we’ve been here. I know he’s going to work tremendously hard to take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.”
PICKFORD HONORED: Phyfe wasn’t the only UNI freshman to have a great week, as classmate Tywhon Pickford earned Newcomer of the Week honors from the MVC.
After tying his previous career-high with 18 points at Indiana State Wednesday, Pickford set a new top scoring mark against Valparaiso Saturday, pouring in 23. He added seven and nine rebounds in each game.
Pickford is averaging 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in league play. It marked the second time he has earned top newcomer honors in the league this season.