CEDAR FALLS – A season of change may be a fitting theme for this season’s University of Northern Iowa basketball team.
On a day in which Ben Jacobson saw travel plans for next week’s season-opener shift from Lincoln, Nebraska to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the man entering year 15 as UNI’s head coach spoke with confidence in what his four veteran leaders will be able to provide.
Seniors Tywhon Pickford and Trae Berhow along with juniors Austin Phyfe and AJ Green have played major minutes at the college level multiple seasons.
“You don’t know what the next change is going to be,” Jacobson said, during a Wednesday media day held over Zoom due to COVID-19 precaution. “You just don’t.
“We’ve got the right four guys. They have the right mentality. They don’t get shook up by much. Not only is it the result of some of the experiences they’ve had, I think it’s bigger and much more to do with they like each other, they’re willing to push each other and they get along. They’ve got the same goals so they know we’ve got to be flexible. We’ve got the right four guys in those in those spots.”
While plenty can change between now and next week’s scheduled Wednesday opener against West Virginia in Sioux Falls, the Panthers enter this season with three starters and six rotation regulars back.
Last year’s team finished with a 25-6 record and the Missouri Valley Conference’s regular season title before Drake upset UNI in the quarterfinal round of the MVC tournament. COVID-19 shut down college basketball before the Panthers could learn their postseason fate which was at worst a trip to the NIT.
UNI now enters Thanksgiving tip-off week with optimism.
The Panthers are the MVC’s preseason pick to repeat as league champions, while Green was selected as the league’s preseason player of the year after winning the Larry Bird player of the year award last March.
Green has continued to bulk up, expanding his shooting range and efficiency from a sophomore year in which he averaged 19.7 points a game and upped his career total to 1,119.
“He’s highly efficient and I think one of the best scorers in college,” Jacobson said. “His range has improved and that jump shot is coming out even smoother because of the strength than it did the last two years.
“People that watch us a lot, you’ll be able to see right away the footwork and strength.”
The ball-handling ability of sophomore Antwan Kimmons and freshman newcomer Bowen Born will allow Green to catch off screens instead of always coming up the court with the ball.
“It’s something I haven’t done that much up until this point,” Green said. “Finding other ways that I can create for myself and others off the ball, I think it’s very helpful for me and our whole team. We continue to work with it and use me both on and off the ball this year.”
Phyfe joins Green as a returning first team all-MVC selection. He has more comfort entering his second season of running UNI’s Flow offense in which the center makes decisions at the top of the key.
James Betz is a skilled perimeter shooter and will back up Phyfe. Redshirt freshman Cole Henry provides added depth at the position.
Phyfe didn’t attempt a single 3-point shot last season, but has been developing his perimeter game.
“It’s been something I’ve been working on a lot outside of practice,” Phyfe said. “I’ve been able to get some (threes) up during practice while we’re scrimmaging. The coaches have been great with me and put that trust in me to be able to take those shots, so just having that confidence and being able to do that has been big.”
The third member of UNI’s big three on offense is Berhow. An accurate catch-and-shoot release resulted in 44.6% success from 3-point range last season, averaging 12.5 points a game. Jacobson has seen Berhow work to do more off the dribble while also improving his defensive prowess.
Pickford will re-enter the starting role he occupied as a true freshman before playing through injury his sophomore season. The 6-foot-4 guard played 17.5 minutes off the bench last season and is embracing the mindset of a stopper following the graduation of MVC defensive player of the year Isaiah Brown.
“That guy who comes out and guards the other team’s best player, we need that with Isaiah being gone from last year,” Pickford said. “It’s a big role to step in, but I’m ready to take that role on.”
Noah Carter – a sharpshooting sophomore forward – has improved his conditioning, footwork and rebounding. He’s in the mix with Kimmons, Born and true freshman guard Nate Heise for the team’s final starting spot. They’ll all see minutes within a projected nine-man rotation to start the season.
“Any of those four guys could start,” Jacobson said. “It’s just what’s going to be the best way to start the game and who’s going to be the best group to be coming off the bench. Right now we’ve got nine heavily in the rotation.”
MAR WAIVER BEING APPEALED: The NCAA denied UNI’s waiver request for George Mason transfer Goanar Mar to become immediately eligible. Jacobson said UNI is in the process of gathering additional information asked for by the governing body and submitting an appeal.
“I do not anticipate Goanar being available for Wednesday’s game,” Jacobson said. “If somehow we got it (the waiver) into them and they were able to take a look at it, it would be great if he was.”
ANDERSON DEBUT DELAYED: Freshman Tytan Anderson was projected to see minutes in the rotation, defending the small and power forward positions. He’s been delayed by what Jacobson characterized as a minor knee surgery. Anderson will be re-evaluated in January.
FRESHMEN COMBO: UNI’s coach describes newcomers Born and Heise as a competitive duo that bring it every day in practice.
“They’re going to make mistakes because they’re young and just getting started,” Jacobson added. “But I would not be surprised to see them both play well next week against good teams.”