ST. LOUIS — Terrific was the word University of Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson used to describe Austin Phyfe’s play against Italian teams that were overmatched by the Panthers last month.
More important than the redshirt sophomore center’s performance nearly one year removed from his last game action was the joy that surfaced as Phyfe toured Italy with teammates and placed a medical condition that caused episodes of fainting in the rear-view mirror.
“He was maybe as close to being all the way back to who he is both as a player, but more important as a young guy,” Jacobson said. “He’s a happy kid. He’s always smiling, always has a bounce in his step and that went away last year.”
Phyfe is poised to provide a spark for a UNI team coming off a 16-18 season that ended with a heartbreaking loss to Bradley in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game.
Jacobson describes Phyfe as his team’s strongest offensive weapon at a center position that will also return Luke McDonnell and Justin Dahl, who made significant contributions a season ago. The Panthers will likely start four players capable of knocking down 3-pointers around the big man.
“We have a lot of great shooters on the outside so if they’re worried about us, most of the time he’ll be one-on-one in the post,” UNI senior Isaiah Brown said, addressing Phyfe’s potential impact. “I feel like any time he’s one-on-one in the post he can pretty much do whatever he wants. Having a healthy Phyfe back will help us in general.”
Jacobson doesn’t anticipate playing multiple posts together at this point within a roster that returns starter Trae Berhow at the 4, alongside returning starting guards Brown and AJ Green. MVC Sixth Man of the Year Spencer Haldeman is projected to enter the starting lineup his senior season.
Green, the returning MVC Freshman of the Year, has focused on becoming a stronger defender to support his jumper that led UNI with 15 points a game last season. He has supplemented agility and strength work by watching film and studying defenders to learn how to improve positioning and fight through screens.
“AJ’s first year, he was adjusting a little bit, getting used to the college game,” Haldeman said. “He’s evolved his game a lot. I think we’re going to have a fun year.”
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In addition to Dahl and McDonnell, UNI has valuable options on its bench.
Returner Biggie Goldman and true freshmen Noah Carter and James Betz join Berhow at the 4. Junior Tywhon Pickford is back to full health and will add quality defense and rebounding from the guard position, while freshman Antwan Kimmons offers support at point guard.
Jacobson anticipates a new UNI offense that was implemented last season will have better execution and pace.
“At this point in September, what we ran last year, we weren’t doing it at all,” Jacobson said. “Now we’ve done it for an entire season. We’re just in a different place and guys have a different understanding of it.”
One hurdle UNI must clear is the sting of the 27-15 halftime lead that evaporated into a 57-54 loss to Bradley in last year’s MVC title game.
“It definitely took a while to get over it,” Green said. “I think nobody is really still over it. It’s always going to be there in our mind until we get past that point. It’s definitely motivation for us this year.”
Chemistry, however, is one variable these Panthers won’t need to address.
“I think we already look like one unit, we already look like one team,” Brown said. “I feel like we have a great team this year and we have a chance to do great things this year.”