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Northern Iowa seeks a fresh start in 2021-22

The Panthers have had some bad luck the last couple years, but return all their major contributors.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Iowa at Richmond Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Few teams have had worse luck the last couple years than the Northern Iowa Panthers.

In 2020, they were a favorite to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, but found themselves leaving Arch Madness early after a stunning upset at the hands of the Drake Bulldogs. The lingering question of an at-large selection was answered by the cancellation of the Big Dance five days later.

UNI seemed ready for redemption leading up to the 2020-21 season opener at the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic.

It wound up being one mishap after another. Senior guard Trae Berhow was noticeably absent, receiving a false positive test that kept him from making the trip. 2020 Larry Bird Player of the Year and first-team all-conference selection A.J. Green was hampered from the start by nagging hip issues.

The hits kept coming throughout the rest of the season: sophomore guard Antwan Kimmons wound up taking a leave of absence from the team to help his family handle challenges brought on by COVID-19. Green elected to get surgery on his hip, prematurely ending his season. The NCAA twice denied transfer Gonar Mar’s waiver to play immediately. Between injuries and illness, the Panthers made the then-unprecedented decision to forgo the remainder of their non-conference schedule.

The rest of the season was a frustrating mess of injuries and illness for the young team. The month of February seemed to finally bring some positive momentum for the Panthers, only for a false positive COVID test and misaligned protocol between the City of St. Louis and the Missouri Valley Conference to end any tournament dreams. Their MVC Tournament rematch against the tournament-bound Drake Bulldogs was cancelled, officially sending UNI home empty-handed. Again.

On the surface, the Panthers seem to be a middle-of-the-pack team at best in 2021-22. But could they be a dark horse for an Arch Madness title?

Unsatisfied with the anticlimactic end to the season, coach Ben Jacobson’s full roster will be returning, with key seniors like Berhow and Tywhon Pickford taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. Green and Antwan Kimmons are both back and hungry for basketball after a year away. On the defensive end, third-team all-conference honoree Austin Phyfe returns. The Panthers also boast a deep bench with a lot of experience, down to the current sophomores.

Ongoing struggles with injuries meant that the freshmen gained a lot of valuable time on the court. MVC Freshman of the Year Bowen Born and MVC All-Freshman Team honoree Nate Heise played in all 25 games last season, starting in 25 and 21, respectively. Redshirt freshman Cole Henry checked in for 19. Sophomores Noah Carter and James Betz played in 25 and 20 games.

With a deep bench, returning powerhouses, and a healthy team, the Panthers are a powder keg of potential with a huge chip on their shoulder. Can they ignite this season?