CEDAR FALLS — Connecting the dots has allowed this year’s University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball team to find consistency.
UNI coach Ben Jacobson said Monday that the Panthers have managed to take film work and reps outside of practice to the practice court and then produce on game day. Health and an added year of experience are also part of the equation for a UNI offense that has made a significant jump.
The Panthers currently rank 23rd nationally in offensive efficiency with as many points per possession as Kansas, leaping up from a ranking of 281 last season.
UNI senior Isaiah Brown pointed to sophomore point guard AJ Green as a catalyst during Saturday’s 80-57 blowout win over Missouri State.
“It started with AJ,” Brown said, assessing the Missouri Valley Conference’s scoring leader (25.3-point average in four league games). “Teams are going to have to try to defend him multiple ways and they started sending three, four guys at him. He’s a good enough point guard to find the open man. If we’re all playing together it will be really hard to beat us.”
Brown emerged from a personal slump against the Bears, knocking down five 3-pointers after starting league play 1-for-9 from deep. Similar to many players on this year’s UNI team, the veteran has simply continued to remain invested in finding success.
“I put in a lot of work on my shot and I’m trying to shoot it with confidence,” Brown said. “I’ve been in kind of a slump, but I know I’ve put in the work. I keep getting my shots up so if I’m open, I’m going to shoot it.”
For Green, success has come following an offseason dedicated to finding new ways to score.
“That’s something I’ve been working on a lot in the summer, trying to score at all three levels,” Green said. “Threes and mid-range (jumpers) were kind of all I shot last year. This year I focused on trying to get to the rim and free throw line more.”
UNI’s trio of Green, Brown and Trae Berhow were playing at such a high level on Saturday that Jacobson kept them on the court for the first 18 minutes of the second half as the Panthers stretched their lead to 34 points.
“We were playing so well against Missouri State that I didn’t want to interrupt it,” Jacobson said. “You don’t have that happen that often, especially on the road.”
The NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) that has replaced RPI as the selection committee’s primary metric used to assemble the NCAA Tournament bracket, is providing added incentive for coaches to stick with starters during blowouts. Beyond the game’s result, location and quality of opponent, NET also takes into account margin of victory along with points scored and allowed per possession.
UNI (14-2, 3-1 MVC) sat 37th in the NET on Monday. Even with the team’s success against Missouri State, Jacobson noted that they only scored seven points over the last nine minutes. With no games against teams in the top quadrant remaining on UNI’s schedule, style points matter.
While Jacobson insists he prioritizes the opportunity to develop younger players ahead of rankings, he realizes improving UNI’s NET ranking has become an added objective.
“It there’s an opportunity to finish it off with some good possessions because of what the NCAA has told us with the NET ranking, that needs to be a part of what you’re thinking about,” Jacobson said. “I don’t necessarily like that, but those are the rules we’re playing by right now.”
Valparaiso (9-8, 2-2) will present UNI’s next challenge at 7 p.m. Wednesday inside the McLeod Center. The Crusaders are coming off a game in which they held Drake’s potent offense to 2 of 20 shooting from 3-point range while also attempting 16 more free throws during a 66-61 home victory.
“They’ve got a lot of talent so we’ve got to do a good job of keeping a hand up and making their shots as tough as possible,” Valpo coach Matt Lottich said about the challenge of defending UNI. “Drake has really been lights-out from the 3-point line. We did an OK job of keeping a hand up on them. They missed some shots I think that they typically hit. It wasn’t all us.”
Guard Javon Freeman-Liberty has improved his 3-point shot and leads Valpo in scoring (20.5 points per game) and rebounding (5.4). The Crusaders have become more of a guard-driven, five-man motion team with fewer post touches following the transfer of 7-footers Derrick Smits and Jaume Sorolla.
Photos: UNI men's basketball beats Bradley