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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 4 Northern Iowa Panthers

Jake’s Giant Killers have become the giants

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship Bradley vs UNI
Guard A.J. Green leads Missouri Valley favorite Northern Iowa
Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 Record: 25-6 (14-4 MVC)

Key Returning Players: A.J. Green (19.7 ppg, 91 three-pointers), Austin Phyfe (11.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Trae Berhow (12.5 ppg, 45% on 3s), Tywhon Pickford (3.6 ppg), Antwan Kimmons (2.8 ppg), Noah Carter (4.3 ppg)

Key Losses: Isaiah Brown (9.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Spencer Haldeman (9.0 ppg), Justin Dahl

Key Newcomers: Bowen Born (Iowa Mr. Basketball), Nate Heise (2,307 prep points), Cole Henry (6’9)

Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson begins his 15th season in Cedar Falls as the defending Missouri Valley Conference champion and Coach of the Year. He has won that annual award four times. Since his Panther teams have made a habit of knocking off power conference teams, they’ve earned the nickname Jake and the Giant Killers. Twice, UNI has defeated the nation’s top ranked team.

This year, they are among the giants.

With two all-conference returners in the lineup and a roster filled with young talent, Jacobson has a team poised to defend its Valley title and make some postseason noise. Despite the disappointing finish to last season, the Panthers have the right to be confident about this season.

A.J. Green spent part of his summer testing the NBA Draft waters. The Valley’s reigning Player of the Year pulled his name from consideration and is ready to defend both the team and individual titles. He led the MVC in scoring (19.7 ppg) and despite double and triple teams, connected on 39% of his three-point attempts.

Austin Phyfe’s great potential was finally on full display last season. After injury problems hindered his early development, the 6’9 Iowa native became a huge post presence for Jacobson’s one-in and four-out offense. The redshirt junior led the league in rebounding (8.2 per game) and field goal percentage (67%). He and Green are close friends and golfing buddies.

Marksman Trae Berhow (45% from deep) landed on the league’s ‘most improved team. The Pepperdine transfer also crashed the glass for 5.7 rebounds per game. After injuries robbed Tywhon Pickford of playing time, the former all-freshman team member seems ready for an important role during his senior season.

Sophomores Noah Carter and Antwan Kimmons played significant roles as freshmen and Jacobson believes they’re both ready to emerge.

4 Things to watch for

Unstoppable backcourt

UNI seems to have an unstoppable backcourt. Green averaged three assists per game and Jacobson says the league’s best three-point shooter has increased his strength, ball-handling and shooting range. That news is terrifying to hear for opposing coaches.

Berhow’s ability to shoot from anywhere and his improving ability to drive to the basket makes him a nightmare. Freshmen Bowen Born and Nate Heise each recorded over 2,300 prep points. Valley defenses will have their hands full with unlimited, long-distance fire power.

Phyfe’s physicality

Phyfe plays bigger than his 235 pounds would suggest. In a league suddenly filled with talented big men, Phyfe is invaluable on both ends of the floor. Facing Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig, Bradley’s Elijah Childs and Missouri State’s Gaige Prim is a formidable task, but Phyfe’s sturdy play minimizes the damage those players can do and contributes strongly enough to keep them working on the defensive end.

While his shot-blocking totals aren’t impressive, his presence in the middle of UNI’s pack-the-line defense is immeasurable. UNI was second in the Valley’s defensive field goal percentage (42%) and third in scoring defense (64.7 ppg).

Phyfe sets the tone on the defensive end and helped UNI lead the Valley in team rebounds.

Carter’s emergence

Green is going to get his points. His range is limitless and he can create his own offense off the bounce. Berhow and Phyfe will score consistently, but Noah Carter is a wild card. He is an offensively gifted player who Jacobson says is in the best shape of his life.

The 6’6 sophomore played every position except point guard last year and will do so again this season. He is strong enough to defend in the post and athletic and active enough to play the wing, but it’s his offense that is intriguing.

Carter scored 25 points in a game early last season and reached double figures in the team’s final two regular season games. If Noah Carter is a consistent offensive threat, UNI will be practically untouchable.

Breaking!

Originally the Panthers were not going to seek an immediate waiver for George Mason transfer Goanar Mar. UNI recently changed that decision and has applied for the waiver. As of this writing, it has not been granted, but the 6’7 forward was a three-year contributor for the Patriots. Injuries hindered the Minnesota native after his successful freshman campaign where he averaged 10.9 points per game.

X-factors (yes, plural)

A shut-down defender

While UNI plays solid team defense, the Panthers don’t create turnovers and they depend on forcing teams into difficult shots. Isaiah Brown was last year’s MVC Defensive Player of the Year and consistently shadowed the best player on the other team.

Who replaces Brown as UNI’s designated defender? Pickford was named to the Valley’s 2018 all-freshman and newcomer teams. He has the athletic ability and the work ethic to become an upper-level defender. At 6’4, he set the UNI freshman rebounding record (248), which is the fifth-best rookie total in MVC history. Jacobson says Pickford is motivated to take on the shut down defender role.

Home and road games

UNI was 16-0 at home last season and the Panthers boast of one of the longest home winning streaks in college basketball. With limited-or-no fans in the stands, how differently does the season play out for the Panthers?

Now that the Missouri Valley Conference has changed its conference schedule, the Panthers will be playing four two-game road trips, four, two-game home stands and a home-and-home schedule with their designated travel partner (likely Drake). Those road trips and home stands will feature back-to-back games with one team at the same venue. How the schedule makers arrange those road and home splits will play a large role in each Valley team’s success.

Northern Iowa is going to score, and it will play efficient defense. It will have multiple weapons and be extremely well coached. Loyola Chicago and defending Arch Madness champion Bradley will be their chief MVC challengers. How they handle the Ramblers and Braves will determine if they are dancing in March.