CEDAR FALLS — At this point in his coaching career, there isn’t much Ben Jacobson hasn’t done at the University of Northern Iowa.
He’s won conference championships, taken teams to the NCAA Tournament and defeated No. 1-ranked opponents.
However, he’s never led a team to four wins in four days at the Missouri Valley Tournament. For that matter, neither has anyone else.
That’s the challenge that awaits the Panthers (15-15, 7-11) beginning Thursday at 6 p.m. when they tangle with Evansville (17-14, 7-11) in the opening round at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
“With something that’s never been done, the facts would tell you it must be difficult if it hasn’t ever been done,” Jacobson said Monday at UNI’s weekly coaches’ press conference.
“That also has nothing to do with this year. It doesn’t have anything to do with the team that we’ve got right now.
“Our approach in terms of going down to play one game and if you play well enough you get to play another one ... we’re going to take that same approach. So if this is the year that changes and next year at this time nobody can say it hasn’t been done before, maybe this is the year.”
First up is an Evansville team that’s as close to full strength as it has been in a long while and is coming off a 75-44 beatdown of MVC runner-up Southern Illinois. UNI lost at Evansville, 57-49, then defeated the Aces Feb. 13 in Cedar Falls, 47-41.
“With (Dru) Smith and (Duane) Gibson ... I don’t know how healthy they are but they played a bunch of minutes the other night (in the win over Southern),” noted Jacobson. “Just to have their full roster, they haven’t had that much this year.
“They’re obviously different. Those are two of their four best players, probably. Not only do you add and put two of your better players on the floor, but that also changes some of the responsibilities for the other guys. The other guys now have got some more help.”
Jacobson likes his team, too. He’s got experience and depth that has grown steadily over the past month and the momentum of a two-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
“It’s going to be a hard game on Thursday,” he noted. “Our games with Evansville always are, and they’re healthy and that can put a little shot in the arm when you finally get your guys back.
“But I don’t have any doubts about our team. We’ve got a good team and we’ve got some momentum and we’ve got some depth.”
The winner of Thursday’s matchup faces regular-season champion Loyola (25-5, 15-3) in Friday’s quarterfinals. Overall, the Ramblers are the team to beat in St. Louis.
“Not only are they playing the best, but I do think they’ve got the best team in the league this year,” said Jacobson.
On the injury front, the prognosis is good for center Bennett Koch, but not so good for guard Juwan McCloud.
“Ben’s making a lot of progress,” said Jacobson. “I anticipate he’ll be ready to play on Thursday. Juwan ... I don’t know that he’ll work out this week. He’s been out for a month now and he hasn’t been able to practice, so I don’t anticipate that he’ll be ready for Thursday.”