Northern Iowa’s turnaround from the depths of early January is almost complete.
The Panthers play Bradley on Wednesday and Wichita State on Saturday, giving them a chance to bury the memories of their disastrous struggles a month ago.
A loss at Bradley (72-61) dumped UNI into last place in the Missouri Valley Conference at 0-5 on Jan. 11. With senior Jeremy Morgan injured, big men playing without enough passion and a leaky defense, the Panthers appeared headed toward a bottom-half finish in the MVC.
Instead, they pulled a improbable rally for a second consecutive seasons. The Panthers are alone in third place at 8-6 in the MVC after winning 8 of 9 games.
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Last season, UNI started 2-6 before finishing 11-7. The scenarios are different, coach Ben Jacobson said.
Last season’s team leaned on seniors such as Wes Washpun and Paul Jesperson. UNI beat North Carolina and Iowa State before fatigue and sickness derailed them early in MVC play.
Jacobson knew what that group could do.
This season’s team has 11 first-year players on its 16-man roster. The Panthers needed maturity and experimentation. Junior forwards Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson slumped heading into MVC play. Morgan missed a game with an ankle injury.
“It was just a matter of trying figuring out how to play better,” Jacobson said. “Our defense was not very good at all the first five conference games. We just had to get a lot better.”
Morgan’s return to health helped. Koch and Carlson shook off their lethargy and returned to playing forcefully.
“Those two guys have been someplace we can go with our offense,” Jacobson said.
Most important, the Panthers defended. They held their past nine opponents under 44-percent shooting, seven under 40 percent.
“We were giving up so many easy baskets there for awhile that we didn’t put any pressure on the team that we were playing,” Jacobson said. “Now we’re defending at least at a level where things are harder for the other team.”
▪ Illinois State forward MiKyle McIntosh is progressing in his rehab after knee surgery. Coach Dan Muller doesn’t want to reveal details of his recovery, in part to remove the pressure of a deadline from McIntosh.
McIntosh underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee two weeks ago. He is expected to miss around another week. He is cleared to run, jump and shoot, Muller said.
“We don’t really have much of a schedule,” Muller said. “When he’s ready, he’ll play.”
▪ Wichita State remained one spot out of the Associated Press top 25 for a second week. The Shockers received 87 votes, up from 38 last week. No. 25 Notre Dame has 122 points.
▪ Illinois State guard Paris Lee averaged 20 points in wins over Drake and Bradley last week to earn MVC player of the week honors. It is Lee’s third award this season, most of any player. Evansville’s Ryan Taylor is the newcomer of the week.
▪ Wichita State guard Landry Shamet ranks third among NCAA freshmen with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.97. Louisiana Tech’s DaQuan Bracey (3.65) is first and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball (3.05) is second. Evansville’s Dru Smith is No. 6 at 2.39.
▪ Former Shocker Rob Kampman will serve as guest analyst on Wednesday’s WSU game at Southern Illinois for the Cox 22 broadcast. Kampman started 107 games from 2001-05.
Evansville (13-14, 4-10) takes a three-game win streak into Tuesday’s game against Drake. The Aces don’t need to make three-pointers. In those wins over Missouri State, Loyola and Southern Illinois, they are 7 of 21.
Drake’s three-point shooting helped the Bulldogs start 5-4 in the MVC. The Bulldogs are losers of five straight and shooting 28.3 percent behind the arc in that span.
Get to know an MVC neighbor
Q: How many current MVC members ascended to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll?
A: Three. Bradley for five weeks in 1949-50 and 1950-51. Indiana State for four weeks in 1978-79. Wichita State for one week in 1964-65.
One to watch
Illinois State (21-5, 13-1) at Missouri State (15-12, 6-8), 8 p.m. Wednesday (FSKC) — The Bears haven’t been the same since a 74-71 overtime loss at Illinois State on Jan. 4. Illinois State outscored the Bears 23-5 at the foul line. The Redbirds can’t count on that margin at JQH Arena.