CEDAR FALLS — An abundance of talent will greet Northern Iowa’s basketball team at 7 o’clock tonight when the Panthers make their second Missouri Valley Conference road trip of the season to face Illinois State.
The Redbirds (8-7, 1-1 Missouri Valley) were a game-winning half-court shot by Valparaiso’s Markus Golder away from starting league play with a pair of victories last week. Illinois State seniors Milik Yarbrough and Phil Fayne were named to the five-player first-team preseason all-conference squad, while Keyshawn Evans was a member of the five-player second team.
“You’re talking about three guys that are three of the top 10 guys in our league,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said during Monday’s weekly press conference. “They can really play and they’ve got experience. They’re on the floor together a lot. You’ve got a lot to deal with, with them.”
Yarbrough, a physical 6-foot-6 guard, may be as skilled as any player in the league. He leads Illinois State with an average of 16.3 points, making a 3-pointer a game while averaging a team-best 8.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
“It isn’t just about scoring with him,” Jacobson said. “He does so many things with the basketball in his hands.”
UNI (6-9, 1-1) is coming off its best two defensive performances since holding Old Dominion to 53 points at the Paradise Jam on Nov. 19. The Panthers held Bradley to 47 points and kept Southern Illinois in check with 58 points during Saturday’s closely-contested loss.
“I definitely think we’re coming together and starting to understand where each other are going to be,” UNI senior guard Miles Wentzien said following Saturday’s game. “I think we’re playing a lot harder, too.”
As players settle into their roles, that high level of engagement will be key for the Panthers moving forward.
“The most important thing for us right now is that we continue to play really hard and then find a way to play harder,” Jacobson said.
UNI’s coach reiterated Monday that forward Biggie Goldman will miss anywhere from seven days to potentially weeks with a lower leg injury. The 6-foot-10 transfer was bothered by the ailment prior to the Bradley game and it got worse during Wednesday’s contest.
“We’ll have to see how he responds is what I’ve been told,” Jacobson said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be good in a week to 10 days or if it’s going to be three, four weeks.”
In Goldman’s absence, Justin Dahl will become a rotation regular with Luke McDonnell continuing to start at the center position.
“With Luke we’ve had to find some different ways to defend the low block,” Jacobson said. “That will be important against Fayne. Yarbrough will also post quite a bit. Then it becomes important that you keep the basketball in front of you. If they’re able to take advantage of some things on the block or beat you off the dribble, that’s when those guys get some shots from the 3-point line.”
Offensively, UNI continues to struggle to knock down shots early.
The Panthers opened Wednesday’s game against Bradley 4-for-18 from the field before shooting 50 percent from that point forward. Twelve of UNI’s first 14 shots Saturday were 3-pointers with the team making just two before finishing the game 17 of 54 (31.5 percent) from the field.
Jacobson still felt those early possessions in both league games were solid with the correct players getting open catch-and-shoot looks. Members of the team were in the gym on Sunday’s off day and prior to Monday’s practice putting up extra shots.
“They’re doing all the right things and we’ve got guys that can really shoot the basketball,” Jacobson said.
One adjustment that UNI has successfully made over the past five games is devoting more players to crashing the offensive boards. The Panthers have recorded at least 10 offensive rebounds in four games over that stretch with Wentzien grabbing six and McDonnell four on Saturday.
“We have rebounding goals every game and the more rebounds you get the more possessions and more shots,” Wentzien said. “I think that’s really important to get those extra looks, especially when shots aren’t falling.”