CEDAR FALLS — Isaiah Brown walked to the marker board and wrote down, “Family away from home.” His senior teammates each added words of their own.
University of Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson made sure his players took an opportunity to share what they were grateful for and count their blessings during Friday morning’s end-of-season meeting.
“I’m the farthest away from home and playing with these guys over the past four years and the newcomers, they’ve made it easy for me to be so far away from home,” said Brown, a Flower Mound, Texas native. “They’re all my brothers and I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.
“They all mentioned something about being a family and I think that’s what gave us the most success over this year is that we were all so close and we just all had that family feeling.”
Wednesday’s afternoon practice marked the last time this group of Panthers shared a court together. Their gathering Friday was the type of meeting that doesn’t typically take place until after a final game, not a practice.
“We kind of just talked about putting things in perspective, what we accomplished this year,” senior Spencer Haldeman said. “It’s kind of weird that we were practicing and then all of a sudden we were done. Usually you play that last game and you know that you’re done.”
The unknown will forever be a part of the 2019-20 season. UNI (25-6) was set to compete in postseason play for the first time since the program’s stinging overtime loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Jacobson detailed a case on Monday for UNI be included into the 2020 NCAA field as an at-large selection. The worst-case scenario was thought to be a chance to host games in the NIT.
That changed over 48 hours as COVID-19’s spread has shut down sporting events throughout the nation.
“Every DI basketball player’s goal is to play in a postseason tournament and that hadn’t happened over my years,” Brown said. “This year was my first year that it was going to happen. It’s been pretty crazy, but there’s just some things we can’t control. This coronavirus is one of those things.”
Instead of postseason preparation, Friday morning was spent reflecting and reminiscing.
“All my teammates that I’ve had over the years, all the lessons I’ve learned, those relationships you have is something that will last your whole life,” Haldeman said. “The lessons you learn with your teammates can help you in the long run.”
There’s plenty this group of Panthers can place into the grateful column.
Players bonded on an international trip to Italy, overcame adversity in Cancun and showed their talent and toughness during a road swing that included a Top 25 victory at Colorado followed by a blowout win at Grand Canyon.
Inside the McLeod Center, UNI finished a perfect 16-0 and drew the program’s first two sellouts since top-ranked North Carolina came to town early in the 2015-16 season.
A stretch of three wins over the final week of the league play allowed these Panthers to secure a banner in the McLeod Center rafters as the program’s first MVC regular season champion in a decade. Still, there were important games left to play.
Sacrifice is the word that comes to the front of Jacobson’s mind when he thinks of a senior class that worked so hard to put the program back into the postseason, only for that opportunity to be taken away.
“From a competitive standpoint they did a terrific job,” Jacobson said. “What I appreciate the most is sacrifice and what it meant to them to be a part of this program and put our program in a better position going forward and raise the bar.
“The standards have been raised again by this group and that ultimately is what makes the difference going forward. What did your seniors do to raise the bar? Did they do their job? These guys did their job.”
Sacrifice came on the court from senior center Justin Dahl, who worked hard to have a productive nonconference season and sacrificed some minutes during conference play. Luke McDonnell sacrificed a full-time starting role and did everything in his power to help those who took minutes at his position run one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.
Waterloo’s Lincoln Conrey made the most out of every practice as he lived out a dream of having five years to be a part of the program he grew up admiring.
Jacobson also mentioned the work invested by senior starters Haldeman and Brown to improve their game.
Brown, who accomplished a goal of becoming the Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year, plans to compete at the professional level. Jacobson points out tremendous growth from his junior to senior season will help Brown land his first job. Then, he’ll continue to make strides.
“Three years from now I think he’s going to be playing in a really good league and making good money,” Jacobson said. “We’re going to be looking at a guy that is playing at a really, really high level.”
Certainly there’s plenty of reason for optimism when returning players and coaches plan to reunite in April.
MVC Player of the Year AJ Green and fellow first team all-conference center Austin Phyfe will be entering their junior seasons. Trae Berhow’s accurate shooting and Tywhon Pickford’s elite rebounding will lead the senior class, while a core of incoming sophomores that includes Antwan Kimmons, Noah Carter and James Betz exudes potential.
“They just spent a lot of time with five seniors that understand how to do this thing the right way in all ways, shapes and forms,” Jacobson said. “I’m excited about where we’re at. I’m excited about meeting with the guys when we get back in April and we’re able to have them back on campus to talk about what’s next.”
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