Panthers are the favorite heading into an unpredictable Valley season

By John Bohnenkamp

In a normal season, Ben Jacobson said, he would have been more curious to see the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball preseason poll.

The Northern Iowa coach figured that his team and Loyola would be the top two teams in the poll that was released Thursday, and he was right — the Panthers were first and Loyola was second.

But this isn’t going to be a normal season during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Jacobson knows that.

“I didn’t even think about it,” Jacobson said during the Valley’s video conference with the media on Thursday morning. “The first time I saw it was just a couple of minutes before we came out here. And that’s simply to do with what’s going on in our country, with the uncertainty, with where we’re at with COVID, and what it’s going to look like. There are so many things going on. It still means the same as it would in any other year, but I just haven’t paid attention to it as much.”

UNI, the regular-season champion last season, got 30 of the possible 44 first-place votes — Loyola got 13 and Bradley, picked third, got one. Three Panthers were honored on the preseason teams — guard A.J. Green, the conference’s player of the year last season, was joined by Austin Phyfe on the first team, and Trae Berhow was named to the third team.

Jacobson appreciates all of that recognition. But he acknowledged the unpredictability of what could be a strange and difficult season.

The Panthers are still trying to piece together a nonconference schedule. UNI is finalizing a deal to play in a multi-team event at Nebraska, and will have road games against Richmond and Marshall as well as a neutral-court game against New Mexico State in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Putting together a schedule that is strong enough to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee is something that has always been difficult for UNI.

“It was a challenge a year ago. It was a challenge five years ago, and it’s going to be a challenge next year, right?” Jacobson said. “So, COVID really hasn’t changed that dynamic a whole lot, because it will remain a challenge for our league.

“You just don’t know what kind of criteria (the selection committee) is going to pay attention to this year. We don’t know what it’s going to look like come March. I know we all hope it’s going to be smooth sailing by December or January. But we just don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

Jacobson said the Panthers did plenty of social distancing during summer workouts because of the COVID-19 protocols.

“We were socially-distanced in the weight room, so it wouldn’t trigger an entire team being quarantined,” he said. “Any conditioning we did, we were socially distant for the same reason. And then with our workouts, we have been in small groups, so if there was a positive test, the only ones impacted in terms of the contact tracing would be a roommate or potentially somebody in that small group.

“We weren’t playing live one-on-one. We weren’t doing anything where there was physical contact, in terms of guarding each other or blocking out — playing live, basically. Up until a week ago Monday, we structured everything to follow the protocols, so we wouldn’t knock out our entire team. And that worked extremely well.”

But now it’s time to get ready for a season.

“We’re at a point now where we’re going to have to play five-on-five at some point,” Jacobson said. “We’ve got to play against each other, we’ve got to be five-on-five. So we started to do that. Now it’s a matter of just continuing to keep following the protocols.

“They’ve been great so far. But man, you’ve just got to be extremely diligent and extremely responsible. You almost have to be at the gym and be at your apartment, now that we’ve gotten to this point where we’re playing five-on-five. We don’t want to knock our entire group out for something that is within our control.”

Whatever happens, the Panthers are the Valley favorite heading into what will be a chaotic season.

“I do feel like it does mean something,” Jacobson said “I’m proud of our players. It doesn’t mean anything on who is going to win the league. It doesn’t give us a leg up to win the conference championship this year. But it does say that we’ve got good players back, and that we’ve got guys that are working hard.”

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