CEDAR FALLS — Jekyll and Hyde.
It is the best way to describe the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team since the turn of the calendar from 2022 to 2023.
The Panthers rang in the New Year with a 6-2 record in the month of January. In the month of February, the Panthers lost seven of their final eight contests.
According to UNI head coach Ben Jacobson, the struggles of February began as the Panthers suffered attrition in the depth of the roster.
Not talking about the first guy off the bench or even those that fall into the nine-man rotation, Jacobson said it is really important for teams to have depth all the way down to the 15th or 16th roster player because of the flexibility it allows on the practice floor.
Leading up to the first three losses against Indiana State, Drake and Bradley, the Panthers did not have that kind of depth.
People are also reading…
“That was a pivotal three games for us,” Jacobson said. “Just before those three, we had three or four guys that were banged up enough we had nine, 10, maybe 11 guys that practiced…As I look back on it now, I could have done a better job with some of it, but we were playing really good. We had a pretty good rhythm going. We got beat in three close games and then it showed up pretty quickly after that.”
The lack of practice depth caught up to UNI to the tune of a six-game skid to open February.
However, according to Jacobson, more so than the lack of depth, the Panthers execution on the defense end—or lack thereof—led to the loss piling up at the end of the season.
“The most important thing with this team is we have to guard better,” Jacobson said. “We are still running into too many screens. Not guarding the ball quite good enough. Not walling up enough at the rim. Our activity level in the gaps is not enough.
With just one practice and a walkthrough remaining before Arch Madness, the Panthers lack the kind of time necessary to correct the problems facing them on the defensive end of the court. But, that does not preclude a possible run in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
“What can change is—maybe not change—maybe just be a little bit better—our mentality,” Jacobson said. “Just having more of an edge to us defensively when that ball goes up Thursday.”
“We have shown it at different times this year. So, the group is plenty capable of it. We have to do a great job of getting our guys ready from a scouting standpoint for Thursday’s game.”
According to Jacobson, that means keeping the scouting report and game plan as simple as possible to open the door for the players to play as hard as possible on defense.
“That is going to be the key for us to stay down there the longest,” Jacobson said. “[It] is: what we do from a mentality on the defensive side of the ball.”
He also added the Panthers need to have a contrasting “bounce in their step” when it comes to the offensive end of the court.
“As serious as you need to be on the defensive end, you have to be just as unserious,” Jacobson said. “You have to be the opposite when it gets to that bounce in your step and being loose and having some fun. We have to find a good combination there.”
Jacobson said the Panthers need to lean into the aspects of their game that have wrought success.
“You have to be able to go down there and do the things that you are doing well,” Jacobson said. “The things that you have confidence in you have to go down and do them.”
Jacobson highlighted the Panthers offense over the previous two to three weeks as an area of the game he feels they have excelled “in stretches.” During that span, the Panthers have scored 67 points per game, shot 44.1% from the field and 33% from three.
UNI tips off its first round matchup of Arch Madness against Illinois State on Thursday at 12 p.m. Coverage of the opening rounds of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament will be available on Bally Sports Midwest.
The conference semifinals will air on the CBS Sports Network on Saturday at 2:30 and 5 p.m. while the championship will be carried on CBS at 1 p.m.