By John Bohnenkamp
His team was down to seven scholarship players, and that, Ben Jacobson said on Monday, is one reason why Northern Iowa canceled its last two nonconference basketball games.
But Jacobson said the mental health aspect was another reason why he decided to give the Panthers a few days away.
That, he said, cannot be quantified. And it may be the biggest part of the decision that helps the Panthers for the rest of the season.
Instead of playing at Wisconsin on Wednesday and Marshall on Saturday, Jacobson gave his players time off until Thursday night. Then they’ll be back for their first practice on Friday to prepare for the Dec. 27 Missouri Valley Conference opener against Missouri State.
“You don’t know the impact that has from a mental health standpoint,” Jacobson said of allowing his players to leave campus and return home. “When they aren’t at practice, like everyone else is going through, they’re back at their apartment or their dorm room, and they’re by themselves the entire time. This allows us the opportunity to address this part as well.
“(The low roster numbers are) easier to see, right? That’s easier to put a value or a number on. The other aspect, there is no way to put a number on it. There’s no way to see the impact that’s having on the guys, or this may have on the guys, to get home and spend some time with their families.”
UNI has already lost A.J. Green, the Valley’s player of the year, to a season-ending hip injury — Green will have surgery on Tuesday — and freshman Tytan Anderson is out until at least late January with a knee injury. Antwan Kimmons, a sophomore guard, has taken a leave of absence to return home to his family.
With Austin Phyfe suffering an ankle injury in last Wednesday’s loss at Richmond, and Evan Gauger dealing with tendinitis in his knee, Jacobson had just nine available players for practice on Friday.
The Panthers’ game with Green Bay on Saturday had been canceled because of what turned out to be a false positive COVID-19 test within Green Bay’s program, so UNI went through a short workout on Friday and Saturday.
It was after that when Jacobson and the UNI administration decided to change the schedule.
“When you’ve agreed to, and you’ve got a contract, to play somebody, it’s very important to me, it’s very important to my staff,” Jacobson said. “We honor and follow through on those things.
“When I got up yesterday morning, I knew that we had made the right decision, based on all of the things that have taken place and that are continuing to take place. But no question, it was a hard decision. One that I didn’t want to make. But the right one.”
Jacobson expects Phyfe and Gauger to be back at practice on Friday. The Panthers could also get to use Goanar Mar, a senior forward who transferred from George Mason. Mar had his transfer waiver request denied by the NCAA, but could be allowed to play if the NCAA votes on Wednesday to allow all transfers to play this season.
“A lot of things can change for us in the next five days, in a number of very important areas,” Jacobson said.
UNI is 1-4, and Jacobson said this is a chance for a reset heading into conference play.
“Get reorganized,” he said. “Get our feet back on the ground.”
It’s a chance to heal, physically and mentally. And it’s going to be important for the rest of this season.
“We’ve talked about everything but basketball in the last few days,” Jacobson said. “For all of the right reasons.”
BACK TO BACK
The Valley is still playing a round-robin conference schedule this season, only the games will be played at the same site on back-to-back days to lessen travel during the pandemic.
The only home-and-home part of UNI’s schedule this season will be against Drake, the Panthers’ travel partner.
“It’ll be different,” Jacobson said. “But I’m not concerned with the back-to-backs.”
It hasn’t been unusual in recent years for UNI to see an opponent in two consecutive games. The Panthers closed the regular season against Drake last season, then played the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. In the 2018-19 season, they played Old Dominion in the Paradise Jam tournament, then four days later in a regularly-scheduled game. They played Xavier in the championship game of the 2016 Tire Pros Invitational tournament, and then played the Musketeers again six days later.
“Those would be the examples I would go to (to prepare a game plan),” Jacobson said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like playing the same team on back-to-back days. That’s going to be different. We may have to think a little bit differently how we approach that.”
• Iowa’s Caitlin Clark was named the Big Ten women’s basketball player of the week for the second consecutive week.
Clark, a freshman guard, had 34 points in the comeback win over Iowa State last Wednesday, and then a career-high 35 points in Saturday’s loss at Michigan State.
Clark is second nationally in scoring at 29.8 points per game.
• Iowa’s Luka Garza shared the Big Ten men’s basketball player of the week award.
Garza shared the award with Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu.
Garza averaged 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in leading the Hawkeyes to wins over No. 16 North Carolina, Iowa State and Northern Illinois.
It is the second highest single-game performance in program history.
• The 37-point game by Western Illinois’ Justen Brookens in Saturday’s 92-88 loss at Eastern Illinois ranks fourth-best nationally this season.
Brookens played 30 minutes off the bench.
“I’m very proud of him,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said after the game. “He has not been in the starting group, but tonight, when his number was called, he was able to come in and play at a good pace. More than anything, his pace was good, and his energy was good — good or bad, his energy was up.”
Photo: UNI coach Ben Jacobson said the decision to cancel the Panthers’ final two nonconference games was difficult, but the right call. (Photo courtesy of UNI Athletics Media Relations)