CEDAR FALLS — Ben Jacobson understands college basketball’s landscape is changing at an accelerated rate.
The University of Northern Iowa head coach still feels a tradition of competition among Iowa’s four NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs was worth preserving.
During a Friday interview with The Courier, Jacobson echoed the disappointment UNI athletics director David Harris expressed in reaction to the University of Iowa opting out of the annual Hy-Vee Classic in Des Moines. The neutral-site doubleheader that paired UNI or Drake with either Iowa or Iowa State will come to an end following the 2018-19 season. Iowa cited an expanded 20-game conference schedule and single-game commitments with the ACC and Big East as a catalyst for change.
UNI hasn’t gone back-to-back seasons without a game against Iowa since 1988-89, and Iowa State since 1980-81. The Panthers played each school annually up until the debut of the Classic in 2012.
“The Big Ten going to 20 games has a real impact on the way Iowa can schedule,” Jacobson said. “I understand that.
“My disappointment is in the fact that we have four Division I schools and we’ve always played each other — it used to be twice a year (against Iowa and Iowa State) and now it’s been once a year (either Iowa or Iowa State). To be able to continue to set that aside, even given the landscape of college basketball, that’s where I’m disappointed.”
UNI’s head coach of the past 12 seasons viewed the Hy-Vee Classic as a valuable showcase within what he feels is a great state for boys’ and girls’ basketball from the junior high to high school and AAU levels.
“It’s a tough day for basketball in our state because a lot of those kids as they’re growing up and they’re playing, they look forward to watching those games,” Jacobson said. “There’s a lot of former Iowa high school players in both games. From a fans’ standpoint, seeing the high school players they watched as they came up through the ranks, they’re going to miss that part of it.”
The upcoming Hy-Vee Classic series finale could mark the only head-to-head meeting between a pair of consensus top 100 national recruits in Iowa freshman Joe Wieskamp of Muscatine and UNI freshman AJ Green of Cedar Falls.
“I think the players at all four schools, whether they’re from the state of Iowa or outside the state, look forward to the competition, being in an arena that size, having a crowd like that in a neutral site,” Jacobson added.
Road to a reunion
Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard has indicated to multiple media outlets future games with UNI and Drake would most likely depend on each institution’s willingness to travel to Hilton Coliseum. Iowa AD Gary Barta said he’d continue a sport-by-sport, case-by-case evaluation of playing in-state schools.
Asked about a scenario where UNI would agree to a two-for-one or exclusive road series with either school, Jacobson responded, “I haven’t gotten that far. It’s certainly something I’d discuss with David (Harris) and our administration. ... Until I’m able to know the parameters of what either Iowa or Iowa State would put on the table, I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
As for bringing former Missouri Valley Conference members Creighton or Wichita State into the nonconference fold, UNI’s coach said he’d have to think about any arrangement outside of a traditional home-and-home series.
“If we could get a home-and-home with either of them, we’d take it today or any day it’d be on the table,” Jacobson acknowledged. “That right now isn’t in the cards.”
The nightmare scenario for any mid-major program is one Jacobson nearly saw unfold firsthand last season.
Loyola edged UNI, 54-50, in the MVC Tournament’s quarterfinal round, beginning a run of postseason wins that extended to the NCAA Final Four. If it weren’t for Ben Richardson’s momentum-changing, shot clock buzzer-beater, a loss against UNI would have likely kept a Ramblers team that won the MVC regular season by four games out of the big dance.
“That’s on everybody’s mind these days,” Jacobson said. “The changing landscape in our sport, in particular the last two or three years, has got everybody on edge. If you’re not in a Power 5 league and a couple others there’s a real squeeze going on.
“Nonconference scheduling is part of that, and the way in which they’re approaching that continues to make it more and more difficult for a team like ours to put together a resume before we get to conference play.”
Filling the quadrants
Starting last season, the NCAA selection committee began using a quadrant system to evaluate candidates for at-large bids and seed the tournament. Earning wins over high RPI opponents is crucial, and road trips can become resume builders.
Wins over RPI top 30 teams at home, top 50 neutral site and top 75 on the road are placed into quadrant one. Quadrant two is a home win against a 31-75 RPI team, 51-100 at a neutral site and 76-135 on the road.
This system has impacted the way coaches and administrators view scheduling.
“We’re going to have to be more creative,” Jacobson said. “If that means we have to do some things that we wouldn’t have done five years ago, we may have to look at doing some of those things so that we can get games that are in quad one and quad two. You’ve got to stack those up.”
UNI’s coach points out his program has taken nearly any game that’s been available with the potential to strengthen its resume — whether it be at a neutral site, on the road or a buy game against a Top 25 program. His players have embraced the challenge.
“They say, ‘Coach, we came here to play the best. Put together the best schedule you can,’” Jacobson related. “The guys have continually said that year after year after year.”
Beyond nonconference scheduling, there’s potential for games against MVC teams to provide wins within the top two quadrants. Loyola entered the 2018 selection show with a 24 RPI, while Illinois State (86), Southern Illinois (100) and Bradley (104) were around the top 100. The Ramblers return several key pieces from their Final Four run, and just two key players graduate from the other three MVC schools combined.
“We’ve got a great chance as a league,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got some really good players back and very good teams back. We’ve just got to work and get creative across the league to get enough (quality nonconference) games so we get to that point when we’re playing each other they’re quad two or quad one games.”
Beyond scheduling, a recent NCAA rule change has impacted college basketball summer routines.
Jacobson and Iowa coach Fran McCaffery came to a joint decision Thursday morning to end their players’ participation in the Prime Time League, a summer league that had been around for 31 years with teams recently competing in North Liberty and Waterloo.
“Neither one of us wanted to see the league go away,” Jacobson said. “NCAA rules have changed drastically for access to our players in the summer. We’ve got eight hours a week now, and this year the basketball portion of those eight hours went from two up to four.
“Between individual workouts, team practices, we’re spending four hours with our guys working on basketball. Fifteen years ago we were at zero. The guys worked out on their own, lifted on their own and played some pick-up. They were able to go and get a competitive game twice a week and the Prime Time was great for that.”
UNI is now two weeks into its summer workouts. Jacobson already sees a hardworking and committed team beginning to take shape.
“This feels like a group that really wants to be in the gym,” he said. “It’s exciting for us as a staff, it’s exciting for the guys, and I think our fans can get excited about that.
“We’ve got to find a way to add some more pace to what we’re doing on offense. We’ve got to get a little more creative offensively. We’ve got a very skilled group from what we’ve seen so far.”