CEDAR FALLS — University of Northern Iowa basketball coach Ben Jacobson is in uncharted territory entering Wednesday’s 7 p.m. Missouri Valley Conference opener at Bradley.
For the first time in his 13 seasons as the Panthers’ head coach, UNI (5-8) will begin league play with eight losses. Jacobson’s 2016-17 team that went 5-6 was his only other squad to start conference play with a record under .500, but three of those losses came to Top 25 opponents Xavier and North Carolina.
A lack of game experience is the most glaring reason for UNI’s struggles to date. Senior Miles Wentzien and junior Luke McDonnell are seeing their first consistent minutes as rotation regulars, while freshman AJ Green and transfers Trae Berhow and Biggie Goldman are new pieces to the puzzle.
“Even though we’re 13 games into the season and we should be further along, some of those mistakes are being made by guys that are just getting started,” Jacobson said following Saturday’s loss to Stony Brook. “The challenge I think for our guys right now is we’ve known that the whole time. We’re going to have to figure out a way to make some plays when things aren’t going great for us.”
Of UNI’s returning players, Wyatt Lohaus is the only one who hasn’t seen his scoring prowess regress to start this season. Lohaus is averaging 10.4 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting. He made 42.4 percent of his shots and averaged 9.3 points in 24 games after successfully returning from an injury last season.
Spencer Haldeman — who matched Lohaus for the team lead with 43 3-pointers at a 41.3 percent success rate last season — has been mired in a six-game slump in which he’s made just 1 of 22 shots from distance. Isaiah Brown’s field goal percentage has dropped from 36 to 32.5 percent with 28 percent of his 3-pointers falling.
Sophomore center Austin Phyfe and guard Tywhon Pickford have been unable to build on their strong freshmen campaigns. Phyfe is likely to redshirt this season with a medical condition. Pickford, who missed valuable offseason reps with a stress fracture in his foot, has averaged just 10 minutes of court time over the past two games.
“He’s not all the way back,” Jacobson said of Pickford after a Dec. 22 win over North Dakota. “It’s going to take a lot of work outside of practice. ... Teams are just giving him space right now. He’s not real confident in his jump shot and we’ve got to get it back.”
UNI ranks outside NCAA Division I’s top 300 in field goal percentage (39.4), two-point field goal percentage (46 percent) and points per game (66.3). After Green (15.2 points per game) and Lohaus, Berhow is UNI’s next highest scorer, averaging 7.5 points.
“We’ve had some guys that have really practiced well and really shot the ball well in practice,” Jacobson said. “They haven’t had as many opportunities come game time or just haven’t been able to get going come game time. There’s no question we need seven or eight guys scoring, feeling good about what they’re doing offensively.”
Defensively, UNI opponents are averaging 70.6 points per game. The last time the program gave up more than 70 points a game was Greg McDermott’s first season in 2001-02.
While UNI’s pace of play is quicker — 69.5 possessions per game this season compared to 65 per game a year ago — the Panthers have slowed to 66.6 possessions per game over the last three contests and still allowed visitors Grand Canyon and Stony Brook to reach 73 points.
“Guarding the ball a little bit better,” Lohaus responded, addressing a key to growth on defense. “It’s hard to stop a team from scoring when they’re getting into the paint. When they’re in rhythm and comfortable (with their jump shots) you have to be able to take that away.
“We’re going to have to tighten a lot of things up, but it’s a clean slate now going into conference so there’s still a lot of optimism.”
As a whole, MVC teams have struggled through the nonconference portion of their schedules despite 37 of the league’s 50 starters from a year ago returning. Favorites Loyola, Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Bradley are a combined 29-23.
In the N.E.T. metric that has replaced RPI for NCAA Tournament selection evaluation, Loyola is the leader of that group with a ranking at 127. First-year coach Darian DeVries’ rebuilt Drake roster has been the biggest surprise with 11 wins and a league-best N.E.T. ranking of 98.
UNI is sitting last among MVC schools with a N.E.T. ranking of 249.