CEDAR FALLS — Coaches typically convey cautious optimism when they’re hopeful a talented roster can stay healthy.
In 2020, ACLs and hamstrings have taken a backseat to the coronavirus on the hierarchy of health threats with the potential to derail a basketball season.
“We’re focused on building our team and staying safe at the same time,” University of Northern Iowa senior Tywhon Pickford said. “Going through these phases, we make sure we’re paying attention to be safe and stay as healthy as possible so we don’t push back our time limits and we can keep moving forward to letting up more restrictions and getting back to as normal as possible.”
The UNI men’s basketball team is months removed from finishing its 2019-20 campaign with a 25-6 record after a global pandemic denied the program its first postseason appearance in four seasons.
“I know how all the returners felt after that Drake game we lost in the MVC Tournament and the uncertainty of what is going to happen next,” UNI center Austin Phyfe said. “It’s all of our goals to play in the NCAA Tournament and accomplish big things.”
Head coach Ben Jacobson is still hoping to schedule a senior banquet as an opportunity to get the group together one more time and find closure.
As for what college basketball may look like this winter, UNI’s coach has his focus on the upcoming fall, holding out hope football and volleyball will provide some normalcy to a campus that has moved its first semester start to Aug. 17 with a Nov. 25 conclusion.
“Fingers crossed we’re going to be able to get all of our fall sports cranked up and get our fans back in the Dome and back in McLeod,” Jacobson said. “That may be saying a lot right now. None of us know where the coronavirus is going to twist and turn between now and then.
“I feel like what happens with the fall sports is going to play a part in what happens with college basketball.”
Still in the process of building a schedule for the upcoming season, Jacobson says finding the right games has been a little more challenging than the past two or three years despite more time to reach out to other programs.
“The coronavirus has had an impact on what’s available,” Jacobson said.
UNI’s head coach did secure a major opportunity for his team when he got in touch with Richmond coach Chris Mooney and they set up a home-and-home series that will begin this upcoming season in Virginia. The programs previously met in 2014 and 2015 with the home team winning each game. UNI ultimately ended those seasons in the NCAA Tournament.
Richmond finished this past season 24-7 and second place in the Atlantic 10 behind Dayton’s Top 10 nationally ranked team.
“They’ve got one of the better teams in the country coming back. They return all five starters. I’ll be surprised if they’re not ranked in the Top 25 in most of the preseason polls,” Jacobson said.
Finding games against the top quadrant of NCAA programs will be important for a UNI team that returns Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year AJ Green alongside two other starters and three reserves that saw regular minutes a season ago.
While some Power 5 programs have been looking closer to home for games in this new era of COVID-19, Jacobson says neither Iowa nor Iowa State will be on this year’s schedule.
“This year when it happened, and we got going into the scheduling into late March and early April, both of those teams were quite a ways down the road with their schedules. It wasn’t something that was going to happen this coming year,” Jacobson said.
“Depending on where we come out on the other side of the coronavirus, and how things shape up financially and from a scheduling standpoint, it may be something that could happen down the road. It’s something that we would be interested in if we could get to that point.”
Similar to last season’s game at Colorado, Jacobson says UNI is looking to accept a buy game at a Power 5 school not only this season, but on an annual basis. The financial component for the university combined with an NCAA Tournament resume-building opportunity makes those types of games important.
“We’re just in a different place than we were five years ago, let alone 10 years ago when we had Iowa and Iowa State on the schedule,” Jacobson said. “With that going away, we’re looking for any ways that we can find to grab a Quad 1 game.”
In addition to the Richmond series, UNI will return a game at Marshall while Northern Illinois will come to the McLeod Center this season. The Panthers are also set to play in a multi-team event in the Cayman Islands. Kansas State, Ole Miss, Nevada, La Salle, Miami, Oregon State, and Western Kentucky round out that field.
Multiple nonconference games remain to be determined.
As for his approach preparing for a season against the backdrop of the coronavirus, Jacobson noted, “We’re charging forward. I think it’s important for our guys to feel that from our staff. Health and safety are the most important things for me right now as our head coach when it comes to the coronavirus and following protocol.”
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