CEDAR FALLS — When Iowa State fans reacted in a fury to their team’s 0-2 start this season, Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobson knew the panicked cries coming from Cyclone country were premature.
“Because of the world we live in right now, whether (you lose) one game or two games, everyone thinks their season is over,” Jacobson said last month of an ISU team that has responded by winning its next nine games. “That’s never the case, it’s never been the case, and it never will be the case.”
Currently, such a mantra is being repeated in Jacobson’s own locker room, after his team suffered a surprising loss in its Missouri Valley Conference opener Thursday.
Favored by 9 1/2 points at home against an injury-riddled Southern Illinois squad, the Panther offense struggled all night, scoring just three points in the opening 8:51 of what became a 56-53 loss.
While the offense received most of the scrutiny, the defense had its issues, as well, as blown assignments resulted in numerous open looks for the Salukis, who responded by hitting 7 of 10 from behind the arc in the second half.
Though they’ve so far been able to stay calm, UNI players acknowledge there is a sense of déjà vu in the slow start.
Like this season, the Panthers closed non-conference play on a two-game losing streak a year ago. Those struggles carried over into Valley play, where they opened 0-5.
Knowing how quickly things can snowball, team leaders plan to do everything in their power to avoid a similar fate this season.
“We’ve had this before,” senior Klint Carlson said. “We have to grow up a little bit and we’ve got to have better leadership. Obviously we’re not happy.”
UNI is hoping to work out some of its frustration this afternoon against a Bradley team that’s also coming off a disappointing start to MVC play, following a 66-64 loss at Drake Thursday.
As was the case in the SIU game, points will likely be at a premium today, as the Panthers and Braves have the top two scoring defenses and bottom two scoring offenses in the Valley.
Like the Panthers, who rank 343rd nationally in possessions per game, the Braves look to suffocate the pace, as their 69.2 possessions per game ranks 307th. Their offensive attack is led by Darrell Brown, who averages 13.2 points and 3.8 assists per contest.
History is not on the side of either team. Since 1993-94, only one team has won a Valley title after losing its conference opener, and another loss would seriously damage each squad’s chances of staying in the conference mix.
But if there’s one coach who’s proven capable of escaping such early season jams, it’s Jacobson. Not only was his 2008-09 team the only one in the last 24 years to win the Valley after an 0-1 start, his 2014-15 squad worked its way into the top-10 and eventually won a conference tournament title after losing to Evansville in its MVC opener.
So until the skid extends to multiple games, Jacobson remains confident he has what he needs to get back on track.
“Whether you win a game or lose a game ... they only count as one,” he said. “(The SIU) game counts as one, it doesn’t count as two, three or four. I’m curious to see ... how we snap back and start our preparation and how we do on the road.
“I think we’ve got a good team and we’ve got a group of guys that really care. I think they’ll bounce back, I think we’ll play better against Bradley.”
Today’s game in Peoria tips at 1 p.m.