CEDAR FALLS — While growth hasn’t been seen on the scoreboard, University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson remains confident his team will get on a winning track.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get everybody going in the right direction and we’ll get there,” Jacobson said during Monday’s weekly press conference following a 77-54 loss to No. 23 Iowa in the Hy-Vee Classic. “It doesn’t change, whether you’re playing really well or struggling like we are right now, it starts fundamentally.”
UNI (4-6) begins its first stretch of home games against NCAA Division I opponents at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday when Grand Canyon (5-5) visits the McLeod Center. The Panthers host North Dakota Saturday and Stony Brook one week after that game before starting conference play on Jan. 2 at Bradley.
Missed field goals has been a consistent theme over the past month as UNI has encountered early deficits in its last three games against DI teams and needed to overcome a 10-point second-half deficit against Division III Dubuque in its most recent home game.
“We’ve got to keep fighting,” UNI junior guard Isaiah Brown said after Saturday’s contest. “We can’t dig ourselves a hole like that.”
The Panthers’ scoring average of 67.3 points per game ranks 316th nationally, while the team’s 3-point percentage of 29.3 sits at 317th. UNI’s defense also sits outside the top 300 in blocked shots (2.1) and steals per game (4.7).
Junior guard Spencer Haldeman is among a large group of shooters attempting to emerge from a recent slump. He has missed his last 15 shots from 3-point range over a three-game stretch after opening the season 13-for-28 (46.4 percent). Haldeman knocked down 43 perimeter shots at a 41.3 percent success rate a season ago.
Struggles haven’t surfaced in practice where Haldeman has consistently been making shots. He hit three 3s in a stretch of five possessions during live action on the Friday leading up to Saturday’s game.
“With Spencer right now I don’t have any concerns,” Jacobson said. “It’s not technical or anything to do with his form. He’s just hit a stretch of a couple games here where they haven’t gone in for him. His routine has been great. He’s working his tail off and he knows that I want him shooting the basketball every opportunity he gets come game time.
“The shots that he’s gotten, he knows that if he doesn’t take them that I’m going to take him out of the game. We aren’t going to chnge our approach with him. He’s too good of a shooter.”
A Grand Canyon team coached by former NBA great Dan Majerle will present UNI’s shooters a tough test with its size. The Antelopes start a pair of versatile 6-foot-10 forwards with their guards standing from 6-5 through 6-7.
On offense, Grand Canyon has six players averaging between 12 and eight points a game and recently jumped out to an 11-0 lead over No. 6 Nevada in a game that was closely contested throughout much of a 74-66 setback. The Antelopes opened the season with a five-point loss at a South Dakota State team that defeated UNI by 32.
“They play very, very hard defensively whether they’re playing man or zone,” Jacobson said of a program picked to finish second in the WAC. “And then just a great deal of versatility at the offensive end of the floor. There’s a lot of challenges. Those guys that are 6-10 are not only comfortable out there (on the perimeter), but they’re running stuff to get those guys 3-point shots.”
Two players Jacobson feels have carved out potential for taking on larger roles after Saturday’s loss to Iowa are junior college transfer Biggie Goldman and senior Miles Wentzien.
Goldman scored a career-high 10 points and added six rebounds in 29 minutes of action. He’s bounced between power forward and center throughout his first season at UNI.
“We’ve got to work hard with him to get him more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively,” Jacobson said. “As he showed on Saturday, he has the ability to make some plays for us.”
Wentzien, a senior who hasn’t been a part of the main rotation at any point in his career, tallied five points and two assists with a steal and two rebounds in 12 minutes of action.
“By the time Miles went in, it was pretty well out of hand, but the game still changed,” Jacobson said. “His ability to get to the basket, his ability to get some teammates some stuff, the way we moved around and the energy our team had changed pretty fast.”
Still searching for progress, the Panthers look to take advantage of this portion of the schedule with no travel days.
“Being here allows us to get on the practice floor, make some improvements and see if we can push our team forward to playing better, longer,” Jacobson said.