CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Everyone was spouting off about the depth the University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team possessed this season. Things like the Panthers could go 12 or maybe even 13 players deep.
(Well, I was at least.)
When the rubber hit the road in Wednesday’s 84-81 victory over Toledo, we saw head coach Ben Jacobson stick to a lineup for better or for worse. Over the final eight minutes of regulation and all five minutes of overtime, Chip Rank was the only non-starter to see the court.
Rank came out with 3:48 left in the second half, and Jake Koch, Seth Tuttle, Marc Sonnen, Matt Bohannon and Deon Mitchell took it home from there. Depth was a non-factor. The five starters combined for 188 of the 225 minutes played.
“This early in the year, for the most part, other than Chip, those guys coming off the bench — (Matt) Morrison has some experience from last year — but Nate (Buss) and Marv (Singleton) don’t have any game experience to speak of. In that situation, to just keep rolling guys in and out, we’re not to that point,” Jacobson said. “I like what those guys have done in practice, I like the way our team is moving. I think we’re going to have good depth, but it felt like a situation when we needed to play our most experienced guys.”
Bohannon was playing just the second regular-season game of his career and was having a rough night Wednesday, finishing 1 of 8 from the field with a couple bad misses early to go along with three turnovers. He played 35 minutes and, to his credit, sank a clutch pair of free throws to tie the game with 1:11 left in regulation.
“Bohannon had been in the game the most. So he was moving around. I don’t worry about whether he makes his first couple or misses his first couple, he’s going to make shots. He really shoots it and he works very hard. He’s always prepared himself. His playing or not playing will never be determined on whether he makes a couple or misses a couple. It was more just a feel of we needed to have our most experienced guys, then who has been in there the most. I thought he did a decent job.”
Of note, Austin Pehl, Chris Olivier and Max Martino didn’t see a single minute of action.
The point is, it’s easy to talk about depth when the opponent is Briar Cliff and Wartburg. It’s not as easy to have confidence in the bench when you’re playing a close game that UNI saw Wednesday and is sure to experience plenty more of this winter.
It’s a situation to monitor. But please keep Anthony James in mind. Ya know, the team’s leading scorer last year who is back for his senior season? He has one more game to fulfill his suspension and will take quite a plunge into the rotation when he steps on the court to face No. 2 Louisville next week.
Wednesday, it seemed like the Panthers could use him. Not only from a confidence and experience standpoint on both ends of the floor, but to take some of the offensive pressure off Mitchell — not that he hasn’t been able to handle it.
The 6-foot-1 Mitchell was fearless and the constant force either drawing defenders to the lane or actually being the one to put the ball in the hoop — as his 27 points suggest. Without him on the floor, UNI may have had trouble getting 50 points (in regulation) and would most certainly be 1-1 right now.
“Deon’s lifting people, and it’s something he’s getting so much better at,” said Sonnen. “He’s playing amazing, he gets all of us jacked up.”
For Mitchell, it’s not about being jacked up. Call it being jacked down.
“Last year, as a freshman, I felt I was rushing myself,” the sophomore said. “Now that I have a year under my belt, I feel more comfortable and confident. I just try to slow it down and see it before I run up and do something.”
More post-game notes from Wednesday…
— The Panthers got the ball in the paint, whether it was through the dribble or the pass. Getting the ball in the paint leads to free throws.
For anyone watching Wednesday, that was obvious. For anyone who has watched the previous three times UNI has been in action this year (exhibition games included), also obvious was the improvement from the stripe.
Entering the game against Toledo, the Panthers were 26 of 47 from the free-throw line. Which is 55 percent. Which is bad.
They turned it around in a big way Wednesday — a record-setting way, in fact — making a McLeod Center record 32 freebies in 39 attempts.
“We knew we hadn’t been shooting real well, but we believed it was just a case of not being in game situations,” said Tuttle. “We know we’re good enough shooters, we know we can make it from the free throw line. I was comfortable up there and was able to make a couple at the end.”
Tuttle finished the game 9-for-12, but made 9 of 9 after halftime including all five attempts in overtime.
— Ultimately, Wednesday was perhaps the best of both worlds for UNI. The Panthers received a legitimate mental and physical test. And they escaped with a win.
In those types of situations, a team runs into things it needs to work on. Specifically, getting the ball inbounds while protecting a one-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. From an X’s and O’s point of view the play took entirely too long to develop and there was nowhere for the ball to go.
Koch was whistled for a five-second call after not being granted a timeout he thought he called in time. If not for Seth Tuttle making an incredibly instinctive call a few moments later, it very well could have cost the Panthers a win.
Here’s how Jacobson addressed the situation.
“We had the timeout left. Jake’s experienced enough, he knows we don’t want to use it unless we have to. It got to the point where we had to and he was calling it. He was trying to do the right thing,” he said. “This early in the year, situations come up in the game, even though we’ve practiced them a couple times, we didn’t practice all the stuff that happened in this game. We haven’t gotten to that point yet. You have to have a couple breaks. We didn’t get a timeout, they get the ball and then it’s their advantage again. Seth made a good read on his own, turned and got that inbounds play.”