TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Northern Iowa players remain steadfast in their belief they can once again turn things around following a poor start in conference play.
Sadly, that doesn’t make waiting for the turnaround any less interminable.
For the second straight year, the Panthers are the last team to earn a Missouri Valley Conference win, as they’ve followed last season’s 0-5 Valley start with an 0-4 record. And just like last season, the primary reason for the slow start has been easy to trace.
Though its style of play will rarely result in gaudy scoring numbers, the UNI offense has been particularly sluggish as of late. Entering Monday, the Panthers were ranked 335th nationally in scoring offense (64.6 points per game) and 300th in shooting percentage (41.8). They’re last in the MVC in both categories.
Those numbers have tumbled significantly since the start of the conference season, where UNI is shooting just 37.5 percent from the field and has yet to top 55 points in any Valley game.
While they’re eager to fix these scoring woes, players say there’s no magic formula for doing so, stressing that it’s simply a matter of making open shots.
“It’s just going to take one game where I feel like we’re just going to hit everything,” said Bennett Koch, who at 13.9 points per game is the only Panther scoring in double figures this season. “I don’t want anyone to stop shooting. It’s going to fall, it’s just a matter of time.”
With one of the Valley’s best backcourts next on the schedule, there’s clearly no better time to end the slump than when the Panthers visit Indiana State (7-9, 2-2) on Wednesday.
When the Sycamore offense is at its best, it runs through guards Jordan Barnes (16.5 points per game) and Brenton Scott (14.8), who are both among the top-10 scorers in the Valley.
Barnes is also one of the league’s best distributors, as his 68 assists are tied for the most in the MVC.
Knowing how difficult it will be to contain the explosive duo for 40 minutes, UNI coach Ben Jacobson says it will be up to his offense to generate enough points to respond.
“At some point in the game, they’re going to get going,” Jacobson said. “And when they do, we’ve got to be able to have the right kind of offensive possessions to keep it close.”
As a comparison, Jacobson referenced a 72-53 loss at Bradley on Dec. 31. Midway through the second half of that game, the Braves caught fire, scoring on nine consecutive possessions to turn a 39-34 deficit into a 56-42 lead.
And while Bradley got hot, Jacobson said the Panthers made the mistake of trying to get into a track meet on a day when shots weren’t falling at a high percentage, a strategy he doesn’t expect will work against Indiana State either.
“We talked about having a better understanding of the flow of the game,” he said. “That’s not the time to come down and take quick shots, that’s a time to come down and get a longer offensive possession and touch it inside, maybe drive it, get to the free throw line. Do something that forces them to defend for most of the shot clock.”
There is, of course, another key element to that equation.
“Obviously you want to get some points out of that possession,” Jacobson said.
Wednesday’s game tips off at 6 p.m. central time in Terre Haute.