CEDAR FALLS -- Ben Jacobson rarely lets multiple weeks pass without talking to his mentor and former University of North Dakota college basketball coach Rich Glas.
As Jacobson enters his 13th season as the University of Northern Iowa’s head coach, his conversations with Glas increase in frequency this time of year.
At the end of a 30-minute talk earlier this week, Glas echoed a familiar refrain when assessing what it will take for this year’s Panthers to find growth, “Get them to come in there and work hard every day.”
A UNI team picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll released earlier on Thursday has experience (six seniors), depth (10 returning players) and upside (three freshmen projected to see immediate court time).
Carrying on a mantra he was first taught in the early 90s from Glas -- teams worth their salt are led by driven seniors through hard work, teamwork and attitude -- Jacobson is challenging his veterans to set the tone as UNI attempts to end a string of three consecutive seasons since the program’s last winning record and NCAA Tournament appearance.
“You have to compete at practice,” Jacobson said, addressing the key to growth from a rollercoaster 16-18 season that started slow but nearly continued before a second-half collapse to Bradley in the MVC Tournament title game. “This roster is better built to do that with the depth and experience. Practice is more competitive because of those things. The six seniors, they’ve got to come in here every day and play their tail off. They’ve got to fight for stuff on a daily basis.”
Indeed, veterans and skilled players can be found throughout UNI’s projected starting five and into the bench.
Sophomore point guard AJ Green was named to the MVC’s preseason all-conference first team Thursday morning. He’ll look to build upon a debut season in which he averaged 15 points and just over two 3-pointers per game, while a total of 94 turnovers versus 77 assists leaves room for growth.
Jacobson says his point guard’s defense that progressed toward the end of last season is night and day better, while Green’s voice is also stronger.
“His leadership has taken a step forward,” Jacobson said. “When you’ve got six seniors on your roster sometimes that can be a little bit tricky when you’re a younger player, but our guys see him in the gym every day. They understand how hard he works at it, they understand that he’s our best player and they understand that he needs to be involved in the leadership of our team.”
Senior guard Spencer Haldeman, who overcame an early-season slump to become the MVC’s Sixth Man of the Year, will join Green within a talented 3-point shooting backcourt.
Fellow senior Isaiah Brown is back as a battle-tested, lock-down defender. Trae Berhow enters his second season at power forward as UNI’s most efficient 3-point shooter (40 percent last season) and top rebounder (6.1 boards per game).
At center, sophomore Austin Phyfe’s return from a medical redshirt season headlines UNI’s deepest position. He’ll join skilled senior Luke McDonnell, who played major minutes a year ago, along with imposing 7-foot senior Justin Dahl.
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“Austin’s best workouts and practices have been in the last 10 days,” Jacobson said. “His conditioning has started to get to the point where he can run the floor and do the things he’s capable of.”
Similar to Phyfe, junior guard Tywhon Pickford is poised to take a step forward. Injuries forced Pickford to miss offseason workouts entering last season, while a separate shoulder injury hampered his perimeter shot during the season.
“It was a struggle because it seemed like the injuries were back-to-back,” Pickford said. “It took a lot just to fight through it and stick with it.”
Added Jacobson, “He (Pickford) and Isaiah are our two best defenders. That’s an area that Ty needs to take a ton of pride in, being a high-end defender for us. Then offensively, how many plays can he make that impact the rest of the guys? Whether that’s driving it and getting two feet in the paint, a back-cut, an offensive rebound, there are things that he does at a really high level.”
Forwards Lincoln Conrey and Shandon Goldman complete UNI's senior class, while a group of seven freshmen offers promise for the present and future.
Point guard Antwan Kimmons of UNI’s Tartan, Minn., recruiting pipeline, along with forwards Noah Carter from Dubuque and James Betz of Ventura are the Panther freshmen projected to see immediate court time.
Jacobson considers Kimmons one of his top on-ball defenders in the backcourt with an ability to get into the paint and find shots for Haldeman and Green. Carter has dropped 23 pounds since high school in an effort to improve his lateral movement on defense and has what his coach classifies as a Jack-of-all-trades inside-out game. Betz brings physicality in the post and, similar to Carter, can knock down shots on the perimeter.
“There’s a lot of really hard workers,” Betz said, assessing the freshman class. “Antwan, he’s there to be annoying defensively. That’s a lot of fun to see how it gets him going. All the other guys we know work really hard. We’re here to prove ourselves and see what we can do these next four years.”
While Jacobson has seen intensity pick up in practice, there’s still another level that needs to be reached.
“These guys have gotten better at it, but they’re not there yet,” Jacobson said. “That’s their challenge, to get in here and fight every day against each other on the practice court so that we can get better.”
The Panthers will scrimmage North Dakota State on Sunday in Minneapolis before a closed home scrimmage against South Dakota State the following Saturday. UNI opens the season at home on Nov. 5 against Old Dominion.