CEDAR FALLS — There are two ways to look at the University of Northern Iowa’s 2017-18 men’s basketball season.
One perspective is to consider how small the gap was between the seventh-place Panthers (16-16, 7-11) and the teams that finished at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
Friday’s 54-50 Missouri Valley Conference tournament loss to eventual champion and NCAA Tournament-bound Loyola was the most recent illustration of that.
“You can make a pretty good case that we weren’t far off,” head coach Ben Jacobson said Monday during UNI’s weekly coaches’ press conference. “The home game with Southern (Illinois) to start the year was a tie game with 90 seconds left. The home game with Loyola a couple of days later, we were up four, had the ball and had a layup that didn’t go in to put us up six with about 2 1/2 to go and they ended up making a couple of big shots and beat us in a one-possession game.
“We had some leads in the second half. At Bradley we were ahead to start the second half. At Indiana State we were ahead to start the second half. There were some other games where the game was tied at halftime. At Southern, which finished second and at Loyola, which finished first, those games were close for a long time.”
For Jacobson, however, close isn’t good enough.
“I’ve always preferred, I guess, to make the other case, that we have to get better,” he said. “That will be our message with the guys.
“I think our seniors did a terrific job this year given the situation we put ourselves in. They fought hard and we had a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament because we were playing good enough. I give our seniors a lot of credit for that.
“Now in order to be a championship team, you’ve got to do things at a high level every day. Whether that is this spring, this summer, this fall, to start conference play when the games get really hard ... We had that great November and December and we had a lot of guys playing with a lot of confidence and playing very well. The conference games are hard because everybody knows everybody, and we didn’t respond well enough to those hard games.
“That means we’ve got to get better. I think our guys take a good approach, but we’re going to have to take a better approach in the offseason. You’ve got to earn that edge. In those two games I talked about, I thought Southern and Loyola had a little bit of an edge to them. They wanted to get ahead of Northern Iowa, or ahead of whomever. They wanted to get ahead in the league standings and they had a little bit of an edge to them.
“We’ve got to earn that edge this spring, this summer, this fall. I believe we’ve got the right kind of guys to do that. I feel really good about our guys, but we have to understand the process takes a heck of a commitment. It’s got to be a daily commitment.”
UNI loses seniors Bennett Koch, Klint Carlson, Ted Friedman and Hunter Rhodes. Austin Phyfe, Luke McDonnell and Justin Dahl will ease the loss of Koch and Friedman in the middle, and Juwan McCloud and incoming freshman A.J. Green of Cedar Falls will help fill the void Rhodes leaves at point guard.
Replacing Carlson’s grit and versatility at power forward will be a challenge.
“That position is one that we’ve got to strengthen,” said Jacobson. “We’ve got two scholarships to do it. If we can find somebody who can come in immediately because they have experience and immediately impact that position on our team, we’re looking at all options there and then also looking at some high school guys like we do all the time.”